Academy’s work to create a more science-aware justice system continues

June 17, 2024
From left: Academy Fellow Professor John Shine, Chief Executive Anna-Maria Arabia and President Professor Chennupati Jagadish spoke to media during the Second Inquiry into Kathleen Folbigg's convictions, in April 2023.

Communicating the value and benefits of science to decision makers and the wider community is one of the Academy’s commitments.

Individual Fellows of the Academy have a history of doing so, including using science to inform the justice system.

Academy Fellows Sir Gus Nossal and Professor Ian Frazer were among 30 scientists who signed an open letter questioning the evidence used to convict Lindy and Michael Chamberlain.

The open letter signed by members of the Australian Society for Immunology (click to see in full).

The Northern Territory Government subsequently established a royal commission which overturned the Chamberlains’ convictions.

Almost 35 years later, the reception, quality and evaluation of scientific evidence in Australian courts was the focus of an Academy joint symposium with the Australian Academy of Law, an initiative started by the academies in 2018.

Academy Fellows presenting at the event included Professor David Balding, whose DNA analysis profiling helped convict one of Scotland’s most notorious killers in 2014.

Academy Fellow Professor Carola Vinuesa also spoke about new genetic research she’d recently completed with international colleagues.

Shortly afterwards, Professor Vinuesa’s research prompted 90 eminent scientists—including Nobel laureates, medical practitioners, science leaders and other prominent Australians—to sign a petition calling for Kathleen Folbigg’s immediate pardon and release from jail.

“Expert advice should always be heard and listened to. It will always trump presumption,” said Professor Ian Chubb, former Chief Scientist and the Academy’s current Secretary for Science policy, regarding his signing of the petition.

The new research, the petition and the Academy’s role as an independent scientific adviser in the Folbigg case were among the factors that played a role in overturning one of Australia’s biggest miscarriages of justice.

“Science needs to inform decisions wherever they are made, including in the justice system, and the second Folbigg Inquiry benefited from the Academy being appointed an independent scientific adviser,” said Academy President Professor Chennupati Jagadish.

Following this judicial inquiry, the Academy has been calling for a more science-aware legal system in every Australian jurisdiction, so that miscarriages of justice are prevented or made less likely.

“The second Folbigg Inquiry amply illustrates how rapidly scientific knowledge is changing. The justice system needs a mechanism to accommodate relevant changes as and when they occur,” Professor Jagadish said.

The Academy supports law reform in three key areas:

  • the adoption of a reliability standard under which expert evidence would only be considered by the courts if it is factual, not opinion or suspicion — a process some other jurisdictions with similar court systems have adopted
  • mechanisms for the selection of experts by independent and reliable sources, particularly where complex scientific material is required to inform decision making
  • the establishment of post appeals review mechanisms, such as a Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Law academics and media outlets are among those who have joined the Academy in calling for reform in Australia’s justice systems.

The Academy’s work to bring about law reform to create more science-aware legal systems continues, including seeking discussions with the scientific and legal communities, and Attorneys-General across Australia.

The Academy’s law reform proposals for a more science-receptive legal system featured recently in the Australian media. 

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science

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