Prosecutions failing because of expert witness shortages

A warning has been given by Tony Neate, industry liaison officer for the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) that a high proportion of court cases either fail or cannot proceed because of a lack of expert witnesses in cases that have a high technology component.

Mar 9, 2006
By David Howell
Percentage of police leaders by school attendance. Source: The Sutton Trust

A warning has been given by Tony Neate, industry liaison officer for the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU) that a high proportion of court cases either fail or cannot proceed because of a lack of expert witnesses in cases that have a high technology component.

“The NHTCU doesn’t have a problem with expertise, but the local level needs to be supported. At the national level there’s no problem,” stated Neate.

Professor Brian Collins, vice-president of the British Computing Society said: “You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty, but without evidence, you can’t prosecute. There are not enough independent expert witnesses. I know experts who have to turn away work because there are not enough qualified people.”

Mick Humphrey, Police National Network information assurance liaison officer for PITO, told ZDNet UK: “You have to be able to prosecute and defend competently.

Experts may have the technical skills, but often they don’t understand evidence production and display, and how to present that in court. If prosecution witnesses don’t have that expertise, the case can collapse and there’s no trial. If defence witnesses don’t understand the background, there’s the danger of having an unfair trial.”

Humphrey also added: “There have been cases where a person is accused of having something on their computer, and the expert has established a computer has been used to download inappropriate content, but they haven’t looked at who else has shared the PC.

This is particularly relevant in offices where people hotdesk. It’s not just about the IT; it’s about identity authentication in a forensically sound manner.”

Professor Brian Collins also stated: “In terms of the quality of investigations, there is a shortage of SOCA IT experts.”

Last week also saw the launch of Institute of Information Security Professionals (IISP) that aims to give better police access to technology experts. Neate stated: “We need an Institute to provide law enforcement with the expertise to help with investigations. It’s difficult to find the best experts to come in. The Institute will give more scope and a link to security experts directly. Today we’ve knocked one of the nails in the coffin of high-tech criminality.”

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