Cuts to forensics science leads to greater risk of miscarriages of justice
The government’s forensic science regulator has published a damning report into the effects of legal aid and policing cuts on the quality of forensic services.
Dr Gillian Tully explained that as a result of tightening budgets, police and defence solicitors are turning to substandard providers of forensic services. The current system, she reports, allows for high quality service providers to be at a ‘competitive disadvantage to those not adopting the standard’.
The report criticised defence solicitors and police for repeatedly instructing providers when they are not performing to the required standards. ‘In some instances, experts have been criticised by courts for their practices, yet they continue to be instructed and continue with similar practices,’ Tully explains.
Further to this, Dr Tully outlined that ‘the adoption of quality standards in general is proportionately more costly for small organisations than large ones, and many case reviewers work in small organisations or as sole traders’.
The report said that the current situation meant the risk of miscarriages of justice were ‘consequently greater’. Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Tully expressed that a failure to find evidence that would lead to a sound conviction was as much a miscarriage of justice as somebody being wrongfully convicted.
The regulator identified legal aid rates as ‘a barrier to the adoption of standards by defence practitioners’ which was ‘a situation exacerbated by the tardiness of payments’ to experts instructing solicitors. ‘The LAA fees for forensic science work have fallen to between 38% and 73% of their pre-October 2011 levels, depending on discipline, before accounting for inflation,’ it said. ‘Some providers have attributed their reluctance to participate in a pilot scheme to evaluate the effectiveness and proportionality of the standard ISO 170205 to this funding position, and concerns over the costs of adopting the standard.’ A reduction in costs would be ‘welcomed by all’, the regulator noted, but there was ‘a need for recognition’ that forensic science must be funded at a level that enabled the standards to be met.
This report coincided with a criminal investigation into Randox laboratory for allegedly manipulating of data. Tully states that ‘[t]hose not moving towards compliance should be in no doubt that their services will gradually receive fewer commissions and their practitioners will face more challenges in court’.
In seeking a solution, Tully has called on the government to place the regulator on a statutory footing so as to enforce an obligatory high standard. The regulator’s role was created in 2007, but without the statutory power to enforce standards.
The Home Office has been working on a draft bill, but Dr Tully says that the length of time taken for consideration is ‘disappointing’. Dr Tully commented on her report: ‘A year ago I warned that funding was too tight, and now even more money has been taken out of the system. We cannot continue on this path’.
Robert Green OBE, senior lecturer in forensic science at the University of Kent, responded to today’s report stating that repeated warnings of the effects of underinvestment in the forensic services are seemingly ‘falling on deaf ears’. He adds ‘[i]t is simply unacceptable to have forensic science practised in the absence (or failure to adhere) to quality standards’.
You can read Alastair Logan on the dumbing down of forensics in ‘From pole position to banana republic’ here.
This article was first published on January 22, 2018