A Case for Conceptualising Science Literacy for Lawyers

Cooper, Sarah Lucy and Shooter, Amelia (2023) A Case for Conceptualising Science Literacy for Lawyers. The Criminal Law Practitioner, XIII (I).


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Forensic science is routinely used in the service of the United States criminal justice system. In such cases, lawyers, judges and jurors each have distinct competencies. Trial judges must determine the admissibility of expert evidence and deliver jury instructions; lawyers must select, present, and challenge the evidence; and jurors must determine the weight of the evidence. As they discharge these competencies, each agent must often engage with the often unfamiliar methods introduced and discussed by a forensic science expert. These activities represent an intersection between law and science – two culturally divergent disciplines — where it is recognised science literacy — “the disposition and knowledge needed to engage with science” — for legal professionals and jurors is important to serving justice. There are limitations, however, in current provision for supporting legal professionals to develop their science literacy, which is foundational to optimising the carrying out of juror competencies. Despite this, the criminal justice system is organised in such a way as to routinely defer to the decision-making competencies of lawyers, judges, and jurors. Through a content analysis of case law referencing the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) forensic science report portfolio in criminal proceedings — which is positioned as a case study — this paper demonstrates
how this systemic practice — driven by the legal system’s fidelity to factors associated with the legal process vision — should motivate stakeholders to prioritise delivery of a meaningful science literacy provision for lawyers. Part I broadly outlines the roles of lawyers, judges and jurors in criminal legal proceedings involving forensic science evidence, explaining this interaction as an intersection of law and science. Part II describes our research design, including the rationale for selecting case law referencing the NAS’ forensic science report portfolio as a case study. Part III presents our findings in three thematic areas: (1) deference to lawyers’ strategic decisions, particularly
in the context of cross-examination; (2) deference to the gatekeeping function of trial judges and the role of precedent; and (3) deference to the jury’s fact-finding role. It concludes that these findings, coupled with the reality that an institutional overhaul is unlikely, should focus minds on supporting — as a priority— lawyers to develop their science literacy, and that conceptualising
'science literacy’ for lawyers is a necessary step in moving towards that goal.

Item Type: Article
23 September 2022Accepted
9 February 2023Published Online
Subjects: CAH16 - law > CAH16-01 - law > CAH16-01-01 - law
Divisions: Faculty of Business, Law and Social Sciences > School of Law
Depositing User: Sarah Cooper
Date Deposited: 10 Oct 2022 15:24
Last Modified: 06 Mar 2023 14:23
URI: https://www.open-access.bcu.ac.uk/id/eprint/13657

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