Research into wrongful murder accusations changed the course of her career.

Emma Cunliffe Professor and Alum, Faculty of Law,
Vancouver Campus

Professor and alumna in UBC’s Faculty of Law, Emma Cunliffe was originally drawn to UBC for its way of thinking about how law shapes society. But when she started to notice a pattern among cases involving wrongful murder accusations, it changed not only the course of her own thinking, but also the course of her career. “My key focus is when a parent is wrongfully accused of killing a child. There were dozens of unfair accusations in England, Canada and Australia in the early 1990s,” she says. “In Canada this was associated with Charles Smith, who wrongly accused 23 parents, but there was a similar figure in the U.K. You start to wonder whether something more is going on. What is it about Canada, Australia and the UK that allowed that pattern to emerge?”

Now Cunliffe is working to right these wrongs. Her research has uncovered a critical gap between expert testimony and medical research – a gap that may have put people behind bars who shouldn’t be there. Last year Cunliffe and UBC Law professor Christine Boyle received a $100,000 grant – the largest grant given in the field of law – by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for a three-year project called Reconsidering Child Homicide: Investigation, evidence, and fact determination in Canadian cases, 1990—2010. “I compare the published medical research with what experts say when they testify. The testimony experts give is often far removed from peer-reviewed literature. It’s less careful, and we need to understand why that difference arises.”

Cunliffe’s take is that it’s more about desire to do the right thing than a few bad experts. “I was unsatisfied with the idea that miscarriages of justice could be explained by people being badly motivated. Rather than thinking of a bad expert who didn’t care, it’s possible he cared too much or wanted to correct an apparent injustice. We need to understand how, when things go wrong, we may share responsibility for those errors.”

Cunliffe’s research has already affected the outcome of a case in Ontario, and has raised awareness of the problem among judges. “I’m teaching judges to be a bit more skeptical about expert testimony, and showing them some tools they can use to judge expert testimony.”

Expanding legal research at UBC
UBC is committed to legal justice through the Innocence Project, in which journalism and law students work together to investigate claims of wrongful conviction in British Columbia. This fall, UBC also opened a new law building as a result of the largest single gift to the Faculty of Law.

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