April 16 2024
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‘Faulty science in the criminal justice system is back’

‘Faulty science in the criminal justice system is back’

A public consultation has been launched today by a parliamentary investigation into the state of the forensic science sector over concerns about miscarriages of justice. The Westminster Commission on Forensic Science is calling on forensic specialists, lawyers, police investigators as well as campaigners and concerned members of the public to complete a short online survey outlining concerns.

You can do this by following the link here or else scanning the QR code.

The Westminster Commission on Forensic Science was set up in November by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice (APPGMJ). The inquiry is chaired by Baroness Sue Black and Prof Gallop and will be taking evidence in the form of the public consultation which went live today, written submissions, and live evidence sessions in Westminster and online. The APPG’s work is being organised by the Future of Justice Project.

‘Many people in the criminal justice system believe that miscarriages of justice are happening right now,’ Katy Thorne KC, a member of the Westminster Commission told Joshua Rozenberg on his BBC 4 Radio Law in Action program to be broadcast this evening – you can listen to it on iPlayer now. ‘My perspective is that the standard of scientific evidence that’s now provided in criminal cases is getting worse and that’s because of three things: firstly, its budgets; secondly, the rules that are already in existence to protect the criminal justice system from bad science are just not being followed; and, thirdly, because of the commercialization of forensic science. Unfortunately, our perspective is that faulty science in the criminal justice system is back.’

The program was broadcast in the context of the week of Louise Casey’s damning report into the conduct of the Metropolitan police. The force was heavily criticised for its own failings in forensics which was leading to rape cases being dropped. ‘Instead of access to fast track forensics services, officers have to contend with overstuffed, dilapidated or broken fridges and freezers containing evidence, including the rape kits of victims, and endure long wait for test results,’ the report noted.

Prof Gallop, co-chair of the Westminster Commission, told Rozenberg that the crisis in forensics had been exacerbated by ‘tight budgets’. ‘Less work is done is done in cases, fewer tests are performed on items that are selected – there’s a narrowing focus – mainly people like to go for DNA or fingerprints or digital evidence.’ The fed into a ‘deskilling of scientists’. ‘Our concerns run through into risks to miscarriage of justice, convicting the wrong person or not finding and convicting the person who’s actually committed the crime.’

Gallop cited her own experience working on the Stephen Lawrence case and the coastal path murders. ‘Both cases they relied eventually on DNA evidence, but that DNA evidence was only found because of a lot of work on textile fibres. Now, textile fibres are becoming a thing of the past and this is because they’re slightly more expensive because not enough money has been spent on research and development to automate things and make it cheaper. A whole area of forensic science is being lost before our very eyes. A few years ago, we had about 40 or 50 textile fibre experts or scientists – now that’s down to about four or five.’

Katy Thorne highlighted problems over the courts’ reliance on streamlined forensic reports introduced in 2012 in an attempt to cut delays and unnecessary costs – a ‘sort of shorthand version of a scientific report’. ‘But that [approach] deliberately bypasses the experts’ duty to disclose the sort of information which might identify the limitations and the context for the defence to look at,’ the barrister added.

Thorne cited a recent example where such a streamlined report was provided in a murder case in which the defendant claimed he had been stabbed by a knife. The knife was examined and the streamlined report provided to the defence stated that the knife had in fact been ‘clean’ and a trail of blood on the ground belonged to the deceased and not the defendant.

The defence challenged the report and asked for a more information. ‘Just before the trial was due to start, a new report came in saying that the streamlined report, which many lawyers would have just nodded through, was entirely wrong; and, in fact, that knife had the defendant’s blood on it and the trail of blood on the floor belonged to defendant and deceased, a near miss of a miscarriage of justice’.

Thorne added: ‘You can’t rely on defence lawyers having the bandwidth to be able to uncover things every time something goes wrong. In this case, it was down luck and diligence. Someone’s liberty should not depend on that.’

Closing date for responses to the Westminster Commission on Forensic Science is Sunday April 30 midnight. It’s designed to be brief (10 minutes to complete)