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Truth-finding in courts under threat from propduction pressure

As a result of production pressure, judicial powers focus more on efficiency and less on making sure they get to the truth. Professor of Criminology Jan de Keijser believes that establishing the truth in court cases is under threat. Inaugural lecture 7 November.

Less time and effort due to pressure on production

Any decision taken by a judge relating to whether a defendant is guilty should reflect the actual events of the case as closely as possible. De Keijser contends that the judge's role in getting to the truth is under pressure. There are indications that due to the pressure of production judges may formally reach their decisions according to the rules, but in practice they are able to put less time and effort into making sure they get to the truth. De Keijzer questions what the right balance is. 

Dual role of public prosecutor

This is an issue that affects not only judges and public prosecutors, but also other experts in the legal system. The focus on efficiency means that courts have had to handle cases much more rapidly in recent years. Added to this, a well-considered decision on evidence is no longer the exclusive domain of an independent judge: since 2008, decisions on guilt and punishment in less complex cases have also been taken by a public prosecutor. Only if the suspect lodges an official protest is the case be put before a judge. For De Keijser this raises some questions: ‘Does the traditional role of the public prosecutor as accuser not disqualify him or her from being able to decide on guilt and penal measures? Do judges and public prosecutors reach the same decisions in comparable cases?' 

Experts in criminal justice

Truth-finding is under pressure as a result of communication problems between experts and lawyers, and these problems are in turn exacerbated by pressures on efficiency and production. Research by De Keijser and his colleagues show that lawyers often do not understand the reports produced by experts. They recommend that legal experts should be required to explain their reports at a hearing much more often than is currently the case; this would also provide an opportunity for them to be questioned on their evidence. However, that would take up a lot of time in the over-full diaries of the judges. De Keijser's research on this issue will continue, and he also intends to study the effects of training for lawyers.  

Different outcomes in DNA reports

De Keijser also has other concerns about how evidential material is interpreted. According to recent research, experts can differ widely in how they interpret a report on biological traces. His research team sent forensic institutes in the Netherlands and abroad identical information about a robbery, including DNA profiles. What he found was that the reports on the case produced by the institutes differed substantially from one another. In some instances the conclusions were damaging to the accused, in others they led to an acquittal and in yet others they were neutral.

De Keijser: ‘This is very concerning because Dutch judges very rarely call for expert reports from more than one source on the same evidence. They are consequently seldom faced with the sitution where two different experts produce two very different reports.' He will be continuing his research with colleagues in academia and with forensic experts.

Everyday threats

It is often the prominent failures - cases of dubious interview technique and miscarriages of justice - that attract most attention from journalists and academics. 'But I want to draw attention to the everyday threats. They tend to attract less attention, but taken as a whole they represent a considerable threat to truth-finding.'

(LvP)

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