Thursday, 11 April 2013

Experts for all?

I've just finished reading a post on the CDFS mailing list concerning an article on forensics. This is the digital forensics list. The title of this post is "No Forensic Background? No Problem". It is a little rant of the type I have engaged in many times. There is some value in it. However it is rather misguided in many ways. The author talks about how he obtained a certificate from the ACFEI after completing a 90 minute instruction video and see a 100 multiple choice question test. The site provided him "an impressive-sounding credential that could help establish my qualifications to be an expert witness in criminal and civil trials."

Now this sounds terrible. Being able to become an expert witness at the drop of a hat. Yes and no. What matters is not a determination from a piece of paper that you are an expert witness. The general definition of an expert in a forensic sense is basically only that within a court of law is an expert if they are a person who possesses a body of knowledge outside the ordinary experience of people. That's it. You can gain this knowledge through either practical experience and/or formal study and training.

That does not mean you are an expert for all things. I have qualifications as a CCE (Certified Computer Examiner), various university degrees and more. I have testified in law courts as an expert and I even have a Masters in Law degree. However, this does not make me an expert in every single aspect of computing technology. I am not for instance an expert with regards to an Informix database. I am a registered Microsoft developer and write code for Windows phone 8. This does not make me an expert on Apple's iPhone. In fact I have not the foggiest idea about current Apple products. I actively avoid them. Being an expert in one area is different to being expert in another.

As strange as it may seem the American College of Forensic Examiners is actually correct me and saying this person could be "an expert witness in criminal and civil trials". In fact, legitimately so.

Let's read part of the piece, "This is how I -- a journalism graduate student with no background in forensics -- became certified as a "Forensic Consultant" by…".

Let's now analyze this. The individual is a journalism graduate student. This means the individual has an undergraduate degree.

 

Now an undergraduate degree is evidence of experience outside that of an ordinary person. As such, what matters is what you purport to be an expert in.

The court will decide whether the qualifications held by witness will suffice in any selected case. This will change based on the type of testimony that the expert has to give. Sometimes practical experience will be held to be more effective and a better qualification than a graduate degree from an educational institution or even research.

For instance, a person who has worked as a barkeeper in a dive of a bar for 40 years five nights a week watching people get intoxicated will be considered an expert on intoxication. In fact, it is likely that they will be held to have more expertise than a person who is a general practitioner physician with little experience with intoxication. The physician can have an M.D., the barkeeper no qualifications. It is a barkeeper who becomes the expert. And rightly so.

Saying the can be an expert is not the same as being an expert in a particular field.

The sole use of an expert in court is opinion evidence. A lay witness can only provide fact-based evidence on what they have personally experienced. This is seen, smelled, felt, tasted etc. That is sense based observation.

The difference in an expert is an allowance to offer an opinion based on specialized knowledge within the court. Experience using in case makes you a type of expert. Experience using C. sharp makes you a type of expert.

Yes their are issues from public perception. Primarily we need to move away from this idea that forensics is some sort of arcane science.

References:
http://www.supremecourt.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/agdbasev7wr/supremecourt/documents/pdf/mcclellan021009.pdf
http://www.judcom.nsw.gov.au/publications/benchbks/criminal/expert_evidence.html

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