The forensic examination of structural fires in Victoria, Australia: decision-making processes and impact on judicial outcomes
Woodman, PA and Ballantyne, KN and Julian, R and Spiranovic, C, The forensic examination of structural fires in Victoria, Australia: decision-making processes and impact on judicial outcomes, Science and Justice, 61, (4) pp. 369-377. ISSN 1355-0306 (2021) [Refereed Article]
There is a body of published research that has evaluated the contribution of forensic science to the criminal justice system, but many disciplines of forensic science remain unexplored in this regard. The aim of this study was to examine the contribution that forensic fire examination services provide to criminal investigations and court processes in arson cases. Forensic fire examination services differ in a number of ways to the disciplines covered in previous research on the impact of forensic evidence on justice outcomes. Forensic fire examinations involve a combination of scene examination and laboratory analyses, and the results can provide critical evidence of whether an incident that has occurred is a criminal offence (i.e. whether a fire has occurred as the result of an act of arson). Forensic fire examination is also a discipline that has faced challenges and undergone development in recent decades regarding its scientific basis and the issue of contextual bias. In this study, data were collated for 273 structural fires that were examined by the forensic fire services in Victoria, Australia. In this jurisdiction, scene and laboratory forensic services are delivered within short time frames with a focus on providing impartial scientific and investigative services to assist criminal investigations conducted by police. The current dataset was highly skewed in terms of criminal justice outcomes and was not suitable for conducting the planned statistical analyses. Nonetheless, the pattern of findings obtained suggested that the inclusion of forensic evidence which supported the prosecution of arson may be associated with an increased likelihood of suspects being charged and defendants found guilty. Examination of the decision-making process of the forensic fire examiners has provided insight into the variety of evidence that is considered by forensic experts in reaching the important conclusion about the origin and cause of structural fires.
fire investigation, forensic fire examination, forensic evidence, arson investigation, criminal justice system, police investigators