WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
December 04 2020
WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO

Forensic science quality on a ‘knife-edge’

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Forensic science quality on a ‘knife-edge’

Less than a third of crime scene investigators meet the required standard to carry out even straightforward crime scene work, according to the forensics watchdog. In its annual report published yesterday, the forensic science regulator identified ‘a significant gap’ between the standards expected and compliance and called urgently for legislation to improve standards.

‘The reality is that forensic science has been operating on a knife-edge for years, with particular skills shortages in digital forensics and toxicology,’ commented the regulator Dr Gillian Tully. Last year, she warned that the risks faced by forensics were ‘close to existential’. ‘It is important that our ability to use science effectively in the criminal justice system does not lag behind technologically-enabled criminals. Quality is not optional,’ she said yesterday. Tully told the Guardian: ‘If you fail to find information on a mobile phone, which could be critical on a decision onå whether to proceed with a trial, that is in essence a miscarriage of justice.’

Forensic work is currently carried out by a mixture of public and private providers, and though the regulator sets the standards, there are no statutory powers to enforce compliance. Seven years have passed since the government gave assurances about providing statutory powers and, according to the new report, they are still nowhere in sight. Tully expressed her disappointment that the prospect of statutory powers appears to have dropped off the agenda again as a result of the change of government and argued it could only now be interpreted as ‘a lack of priority being given to forensic science quality by the government’.

The regulator identified as particular shortcomings the handling of ‘ballooning’ digital data and the contamination of DNA profiles. She highlighted lack of government funding as the root cause of the problems, and lack of statutory enforcement power as the main roadblock for meeting standards.

Tully said that ‘all forensic science must be conducted by competent forensic scientists, according to scientifically valid methods’ but also, ‘quality does not exist in a vacuum’. In her previous report, Tully stated the need to introduce a quality standard for case reviews. This year she recognised that the cost of such a system was ‘not insubstantial’ and that there was a serious problem with implementing a standard for case review work that was primarily funded by the Legal Aid Agency as providers who adopt a quality standard would be placed at a competitive disadvantage.

According to regulator: ‘Solicitors are generally required to award work to the provider offering the lowest quote for the work; this takes no account of any formal quality assurance mechanism.’


Key findings include:

  • By this October only 30% of crime scene investigators will meet the required standard to carry out simple crime scene work, and even fewer will be accredited for complex crime scenes.
  • Not one CCTV analyst in the country currently meets the accredited standard.
  • A total of 1,100 contaminant DNA profiles were identified on the National DNA Database as belonging to police officers and other staff.