Gender Violence:The Health Impact – Role of Forensic Evidence in Accessing Justice

by Sheila Jayaprakash

Forensic evidence is a specialised branch of medical jurisprudence wherein material is collected and collated in order to form a body of evidence from which scientifically based deductions may be made. Forensic evidence can be very important in a criminal investigation, and has an impact on the entire criminal justice delivery system. An investigation by the police is aided by the report of forensic experts. These findings are then used by the prosecution or defence lawyers in presenting their case and could be one of the grounds on which the judge acquits or convicts the accused. This brings in the laboratory analyst or scientist as a crucial link into the dispensation of criminal justice. Forensic scientists work closely with the police in gathering material or in the analysis of material sent to their laboratories. Forensic laboratories have been largely set up and run by the government and such laboratories by default become another link in the chain of law enforcement.

Forensic evidence may be used in the analysis of fingerprints or handwriting to identify persons. DNA testing by laboratories has been used to confirm the identity of a deceased victim or parentage in civil cases or to identify perpetrators of homicide, rape or other criminal offences. Autopsies use forensic science to deduce the cause of death and the analysis of toxic substances found in the body of the victim. Forensic experts are also called in for cases involving drugs or the use of firearms. Thus, forensic reports could be the basis of physical evidence in a criminal or civil case; forensic evidence could also be used to form a database outside the criminal system in substantiating statistical deductions.

Forensic evidence has been important in obtaining convictions in rape cases. The identity of the accused has in several cases been based on semen analysis found in or on the clothing of the victim. The collection of this piece of evidence has to be done at the earliest point of time. When a rape complaint is filed with the police, they should immediately take the victim to the nearest hospital. Women’s rights activists have for a long time called for ‘standardised kits for collection of evidence of rape’, with detailed directions for the method of use. Samples collected by the doctor, such as vaginal swabs, are then sent to a laboratory for analysis. This could result in crucial evidence that ultimately leads to a conviction.

The importance of forensic evidence in the justice system places great emphasis on the existence of proper laboratories. They must have well-qualified staff, not only for analysis and reports, but also to give evidence in a court of law when necessary. Moreover, the laboratories must prevent loss or contamination of samples. All law-enforcing agencies must have easy access to such laboratories, while the reporting of forensic evidence must be standardised – the accuracy of such reports has to be maintained because of their evidentiary value. The number of laboratories that offer such services is little, and with the need for more forensic laboratories, private laboratories have begun offering these services.

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Sheila Jayapraksash is a prominent Chennai based advocate who is an active women’s lawyer who never minces her
words when it comes to voicing issues of crimes against women. A veteran in her field, she started her career by launching a writ petition on behalf of sex workers in Mumbai. Even as a busy Madras High Court prosecutor, she is one of Chennai’s leading women’s rights activists.

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