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16 December 2021

Words from the morgue: the relationship between the law and forensic medicine

New book by a King’s academic explores the social and legal implications of forensic medicine in North India

Northern India people and mountains

Dr Fabien Provost, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, has published a new book examining the relationship between forensic medicine and the law, including how medical practice is influenced by legal processes.

Entitled Les mots de la morgue: la médecine légale en Inde du Nord (Words from the morgue: forensic medicine in North India), the book details Dr Provost’s study into the day-to-day practises forensic medicine and the law in Northern India, including clinical examinations, interactions between doctors, relatives and police officers, and the preparation of written reports.

Adapted from his PhD thesis, Dr Provost aimed to provide newnsight into the relationship between forensic medicine and the country’s legal system. To achieve this he attended up to 300 autopsies and focused on the language used in reporting.Despite a lack of manpower in the medical field, it has been estimated by a journalist that India has a particularly high autopsy rate, at around 7.4%.

Dr Provost said his research shows how legal interpretations are influenced by the language used in different medical practices and so suggested forensic medicine could be used a way of resolving legal challenges.

Thanks to historians and anthropologists, we know that, since the 18th century, forensic medicine in India has been considered by colonial authorities as a crucial tool to exert political domination, and as a method to produce data about colonial subjects. My research contributes to this scholarship and brings a complementary perspective by highlighting how doctors can resist the usual interpretation of medico-legal notions. One example I take in the book is that of the classification of a series of minor injuries as what the Indian penal code (IPC) calls ‘grievous hurt’. For many doctors, a series of superficial incisions caused by a knife should be classified as ‘grievous hurt’ rather than “simple” because it may require a heavy surgical intervention, but in theory, the IPC only considers injuries individually – and a superficial incision doesn’t match the legal criteria of the ‘grievous hurt’. While I was in the field, I have observed that many doctors have a feeling of injustice when they write that someone who has been the victim of many incisions during an assault is only suffering from ‘simple hurt’. But I have also seen some of them argue in their reports that these should be considered as ‘grievous’. They cannot say it so simply, because in these documents, doctors are bound to the formal conventions of medico-legal written expression. However, by using adverbs, passive voice and ambiguous formulations, they can try to influence the way their reports will be interpreted in courts without appearing biased or unscientific. This is one of the main questions I tackle in my book: forensic medicine cannot exist without language – a language which at first sight looks particularly technical, void of any subjective presence – but language also offers margins for action which doctors can use to act on their ideals of equity or social justice.

Dr Fabien Provost

Read more about the book, published in October 2021 by Éditions Mimésis.