November 22 2023

Ministers need to reinstate a national forensic science service – and quickly

Ministers need to reinstate a national forensic science service – and quickly


microscopeA new forensic and biometrics service is planned by the Home Office, four years after it controversially abolished its predecessor.

Ministers say there will be a ‘national approach’ to forensic science in criminal cases in England and Wales and they are supporting a police review of whether there should be a ‘joint Forensic and Biometric Service’ to achieve economies of scale, increased capability and resilience.

  • You can read the statement of  Mike Penning, minister for policing and criminal justice here; and more about the forensic science strategy here

The Forensic Science Service, a government-owned company, was shut down in 2012, after the government said it lost £2m each month. The Commons Science and Technology Committee published two reports in 2011 and 2013 lambasting the government for its secret decision to close the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in 2010 listing a series of failures including the lack of a coherent archiving system for materials from investigations after the closure of the FSS Archive and a failure to address chronic problems in the funding for forensic science research.

The secrecy meant that The Lord Chief Justice, the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer, the DPP, the Attorney General and even the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) had no idea this was being done. England and Wales are the only countries in the world in which forensic sciences entirely in the hands of either the police or private forensics science providers whose principal customer is the police. In-house police laboratory work has increased massively since the FSS was closed.

In January 2015 the National Audit Office produced an analysis which confirmed the worst fears of those who have expressed repeated concerns about the way in which forensic science is being treated and its impact on the criminal justice system. It said forensic science provision was under threat because police were increasingly relying on unregulated experts to examine samples from suspects and crime scenes. Digital analysis of computers and smart-phones was being conducted in an ad hoc manner which did not provide value for money, it said.

Miscarriage risk
Senior politicians, scientists and lawyers, including the criminal law committee of the Law Society, had warned in 2012 that closing the forensic science archive would cause miscarriages of justice and stop police solving crimes and that reliance on private forensics science providers would leave the detection of crime and criminals at the mercy of market forces. Further the refusal to allow police forces to lodge forensic items into the Forensic Archive meant that police forces had to create individual storage systems with no national standards and future cold case reviews would become impossible.

The decision to adopt a ‘national approach’ must go hand in hand with the creation of a new FSS and the re-opening of the Forensic Archive. The FSR must be given statutory powers to create and enforce national standards for forensic analysis and the training and research that the old FSS, an internationally acclaimed body, provided must again re-instated.

Lastly, the government must abandon its belief that the criminal justice system must be cost neutral and funded by those who use it.