Forensics and the delivery of justice
Last week saw the publication of the Forensic Science Regulator’s annual report for 2017. It is widely accepted that quality standards in forensic science are integral to the criminal justice system (not necessarily just the prosecution) and so the value of the regulator is well established. Without it, there are greater risks that those guilty of crime may escape justice or innocent people could be convicted. Within the report the regulator makes many knowledgeable remarks and clearly identifies the disparity between value, cost and benefit. As in previous years, there have been increased calls to provide the regulator with statutory powers and the repeat warnings that budget cuts to forensic services pose a significant risk to forensic science (and the effective delivery of justice).
A number of those commenting on the report appear to conflate the apparent quality failures with the closure of the Forensic Science Service in 2012. Although many of the quality issues identified in the report are symptomatic of an unstable forensic science service ‘market’ and the insourcing of forensic tests within the police, this is simply not the case. Others have commented that quality trials do not exist within the private sector, which is similarly untrue.
I have seen first-hand the private sector’s stringent adherence to quality standards and the exacting rules they must measure up to. There are many remarkable innovations and working practices devised and delivered by talented and hardworking scientists within the private sector as well as those working in policing and defence sectors and so to suggest that quality failures are necessarily associated with either is both unfair and imaginary. In fact, several of the major errors have originated in large ISO accredited organisations.
On the other hand, it was unexpected to see the report making reference to the use of unaccredited external (forensic) suppliers. I was always led to believe that the police procurement framework requires all private forensic service providers to maintain accreditation to the 17025 standard and so it’s surprising to see this. Let’s be very clear, a mainstream forensic science service provider not achieving quality accreditation would be disallowed from undertaking forensic casework until official certification and endorsement that they comply with quality standards is received. There simply cannot be one standard for one and one rule for another. Whilst applauding the introduction of a timetable to comply with the regulator’s codes of practice it is, in my view time to look less superficially at delivering effective forensic science services even-handedly for both the prosecution and also allowing defence funding access to these services.
Whilst the austerity measures currently faced by many within the criminal justice sector might explain some difficulties, it is harder to appreciate how and why the leadership of some organisations continue to pay little attention to issues such as the compromise of exhibit integrity, the loss of exhibits, performance inconsistency and method failures. Such issues seriously undermine the confidence and reliance on forensic science, so putting our regulator on a statutory footing would appear a significant move in the right direction.
Particularly with the recent failure to disclose relevant material in the case of Liam Allan and others it is particularly unsettling to note the inappropriate use of streamlined forensic reports. The use of Stage 1 forensic reports should only be admitted when the evidence is accepted as fact by all parties. It seems, on a number of occasions the request to prepare evidential reports has been refused. It is felt by some that the use of the streamlined forensic report is used in a manner which would deny full and proper disclosure of scientific evidence to the defence. It should also be pointed out that disclosure is a duty of the prosecution.
And so, despite the resolute belief in the need to apply quality standards in forensic science, I believe that the inadequacies which have the greatest potential to mislead can be linked to four specific problems. Firstly, the non-submission of items for forensic analysis where the particular exhibits do not appear to support the prosecution case. Although these items have been collected they are stored locally and may not necessarily appear on a non-disclosure schedule.
Secondly, I have some apprehension in respect of the number of in-house examinations being undertaken in non-accredited police facilities to which the defence (and for that matter – currently the auditors) have limited/no access. Thirdly, perhaps connected with the austerity measures within the police service is the (over) targeted way in which some examinations are requested from the external forensic supplier. Finally, there is a growing uneasiness that, under the present guise, the regulator maybe able to influence and leverage the external providers of forensic science. This is despite the fact that a good proportion of forensic work is now undertaken within the police service itself.