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Digital evidence can ‘obscure rather than illuminate’ in criminal cases – Sharp

By January 9, 2022February 16th, 2022Criminal, Government

Digital evidence in criminal cases will most likely increase the chances of justice being served, but the courts must accept that it can also ‘obscure rather than illuminate’, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division has informed.

Dame Victoria Sharp said the increase of technology has ‘transformed society and has led to distinct changes in how individuals behave and engage with the world around them’, presenting legal systems with ‘extraordinary challenges’.

This calls for ‘adapting existing legal frameworks to new types of crime’ and ‘developing the expertise to combat such criminal activity, including internationally in this technologically connected world’, Sharp detailed in a speech to the National Criminal Justice Conference published this week.

‘There are now very few crime scenes that might not be better described as digital crime scenes,’ Sharp noted. In many cases, the quality and legal integrity of digital evidence can be essential to ‘the fair resolution of the case’.

However, Sharp warned that digital evidence must be ‘comprehensible and credible to the decision-makers in our system, who are, for the most part, ordinary members of the public sitting as lay magistrates or as jurors’.

The ‘vast amount’ of digital evidence available to investigators and prosecutors is a ‘potentially precious resource’, Sharp said, which may prove ‘more reliable than traditional evidence and thus further the interests of justice’. But Sharp emphasised that ‘jurors – and, indeed, judges dare I say it – have to understand the evidence that is put before them’.

‘Whilst digital evidence can enhance the prospect of justice being done, the scope for evidence that deals with the new technologies to obscure, rather than illuminate, must also be faced,’ she added.

Sharp proposed that ‘it would not be surprising’ if judges or jurors found it hard to understand expert evidence or follow cross-examination targeted at ‘revealing flaws in scientific methodology, or then to determine how much weight to attach to it’. This gives rise to the ‘obvious risk that the resolution of an issue in dispute will simply involve deference to the opinion of a convincing expert’, she stated.

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