Professional Networks and Pre-Trial Criminal Investigations in Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh

27 June 2017, 4.00 PM - 20 June 2017, 6.00 PM

Kelly-Ann Couzens (The University of Western Australia)

Lady Hale Moot Court

Although Scottish doctors had been receiving a compulsory grounding in forensic medical education since the 1830s, pre-trial records reveal that many nineteenth-century practitioners were confused as to how crimes were investigated in their own country and ill-informed of their medico-legal duties when circumstances compelled their involvement in criminal cases. To assuage their anxieties, Scottish medical practitioners often turned informally to their own professional networks for advice and direction, seeking guidance from recognized experts in the forensic medical field. 

This paper proposes to analyse select Crown investigations into rape and homicide cases tried within Scotland between 1822-1906, to demonstrate that forensic medical practice can only be complexly understood if it is situated beyond the traditional confines of the criminal trial and contextualised within its genesis in the pre-trial stage. Through drawing on PhD research into the professional careers of four practitioners who occupied the Regius Chairs of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh (Robert Christison, Thomas Stewart Traill, Andrew Douglas Maclagan & Henry Duncan Littlejohn), it is possible to survey broader trends in claims of expertise, authority and connection within the Scottish medico-legal world of the Victorian and early-Edwardian eras.

This paper seeks to underscore the centrality of both formal and informal connections and practices between medical and legal practitioners, prosecutors, journalists and the communities they served. While medical men were most often called by officials to certify death, disease, injury or sanity in homicide and rape cases, some medical experts occupied less formal, yet eminently more influential positions within criminal investigations. Select forensic practitioners (recognised by the Crown as experts within the field of medical jurisprudence in Scotland), occupied an informal advisory role to prosecuting counsel and procurator fiscals. This role included interpreting medical evidence, resolving conflicts in testimony and directing forensic inquiries, in cases in which the medico-legal grounds of the case were in dispute. Yet this relationship remained private and behind-the scenes, revealed not through the process of trial, but concealed in the precognitions records, letters and directives conducted by the Crown during the pre-trial period.

This paper hopes to reveal the complex web of connections, motives, roles and circumstances which defined the nature of medico-legal investigations in homicide and rape cases in nineteenth-century Scotland- in the process offering scholars a valuable insight into how forensic medical practice engaged with and was received by various levels of Scottish society.

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