HOME, Hard to Place Journalism
THE ROLE OF EXPERT WITNESSES
The Supreme Court on Wednesday released an important judgement concerning two asylum seekers whose application to stay in the UK had been turned down by the Secretary of State for Home Department on the evidence, in large part, of linguistic analysis. The judgement is fascinating and rigorously argued, and upholds reversal of the Secretary of State's refusal.
In the judgement Lord Carnwath writes about expert witness evidence and proper examination of experts, and of doing so within the flexibility permitted by the 2007 Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act. The experts in the cases in this judgement were a Swedish company of analytic linguists called Sprakab. The company raised probable doubt that the asylum seekers came from where in Somalia they said that they did. A Sprakab analyst also reported that the knowledge of the asylum seekers of the area they said they came from was poor, and sounded rehearsed. Of these comments by Sprakab Lord Carnwath writes, "It is not the function of an expert in language use to offer an opinion on general credibility."
The telling point for Lord Carnwath, who was supported unanymously by his fellow jurists Lords Neuberger, Clarke, Hughes and Hodge, was that the expert witnesses had exceeded their competence. "Expert witnesses should never act or appear to act as advocates," writes Lord Carnwath. No doubt is cast on Sprakab's competence to be seen as expert linguistic analysts.
 UKSC 30. On appeal from:  CSIH 68. Judgement given 0n 21st May, 2014.
Wednesday was also The Supreme Court's last day of term. I arrived in Court 2 just in time to catch the last 20 minutes or so of a case about prisoners' rights to access courses they must take if they are to be considered for parole.
I snook in and sat behind a woman who turned out to be from the prison service. Four sets of lawyers; 4 QCs, and juniors [instructed by solicitors] presented their cases to Lords Neuberger, Toulson, Mance, Hughes and Hodge. In another place the victims and perpetrators live, but here the human race was striving for justice for both.
Since their Lordships have not yet handed down their judgement I'll leave the story here, but make a passing comment. One of the lawyers for the respondent, the Secretary of State for Justice, remarked on the difficulty, accepted by Strasbourg, of assessing what constitutes distress for someone imprisoned.That may be what the law has said, but is the observation still true? There is a whole field of stress biology, with biomarkers and diagnostic tools, from genetics to cellular. Biology moves quickly, not necessarily its paradigms, but certainly in adding detail to metabolomics, proteomics and the genetics of physiology.
The arguments I heard, though, were all about law. My digression in the previous paragraph was not on the table. The jurists made their last request for an explanatory note, and then they, and we, rose, and we stood decorously as the five jurists bustled, collecting stray papers, pens and computers, and disappeared through the door behind them*.
*Modification in the English made by HG for clarity on 24th May, 2014.
Supreme Court of the United Kingdon. 2014/0086. Article 5(1) ECHR - Prisoners' Rights - access to rehabilitation measures - damages. Hearing dates slated as 19th and 20th May, 2014, but actual final date of hearing, which I attended as a member if the press, was the morning of 21st May, 2014.
Words, layout and code, Helen Gavaghan© All rights reserved