December 01 2021

FSS closure: foolhardy & short-sighted

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FSS closure: foolhardy & short-sighted

‘Today’s orthodoxy may be tomorrow’s outdated learning,’ reflected  Lord Justice Toulson when considering a case where the evidence of expert scientific witnesses was central to the case. Last month the trial of a young couple accused of killing their four month old son was halted when nearly 60 expert witnesses could not agree on the cause of the baby’s death.

The prosecution said that the brain damage the baby had suffered could only have been caused by ‘shaken baby’ syndrome, or by having his head hit against something. In fact it’s now believed that the child was suffering from rickets due to a vitamin D sufficiency which caused his skull to be so weak that it fractured spontaneously. I wonder what it was like for the jurors trying to follow the expert’s evidence, when even the professionals could not agree with each other, and I wonder if this type of evidence should even be put to a jury in the same way that other evidence is – in other words, that ordinary members of the public must listen to an expert scientist speaking about his or her specialist subject and then make their minds up if they ‘believe’ that witness beyond any doubt. All this leads me on to my view of the proposed closure of the Forensic Science Service, scheduled at the end of March this year.

What many people fail to fully appreciate is the work done by the FSS developing the latest forensic scientific methods. They were, for example, responsible for establishing the world’s first national DNA database, respected around the world and with an archive of more than 1.5 million case files.

The FSS was established as an executive agency of the Home Office in 1991 but over the intervening years the FSS has made a highly complicated and difficult transition from public to commercial entity. The government argues that the FSS has been losing more than £2 million of taxpayers’ money a month although that is disputed (‘…. not the full story,’ the science and technology committee said last year).

The Government expects private companies to fill the void. They will bid against each other to win the contract to carry out the work. It’s tempting to see a situation where a private company reporting back on a forensic sample to a police force customer will need to do so quickly and cheaply to secure their ‘preferred supplier’ status. It’s sadly also tempting to believe that they may wish to come up the kind of analysis that supports their paymasters’ view (i.e. that the suspect is indeed guilty). Take blood pattern analysis for example. Two experts – one prosecution and one defence – will look at the material and will be asked for their report. The question will be, did the pattern of blood staining on the suspect’s jacket get there because he was the one delivering the fatal blow, or because he had contact with the deceased whilst trying to resuscitate him? Both experts will in all likelihood look at the evidence and come up with opposing views. Both will later go to court and give that evidence to the jury who has to decide with the help of the judge’s summing up, which view they believe.

All of this of course is at a cost to the public purse. I do not believe that such evidence should be part of an adversarial system. I reckon (in my ideal world) there should be one completely independent, impartial judicial forensic service which looks at the submitted material on behalf of the court, and produces all the facts in relation to that evidential material. I don’t know how it would work in real life, but I think to do away on a cost-cutting basis with such an important resource as the FSS is foolhardy and short-sighted. To put such work out to tender, to the cheapest, quickest, and in some cases unregulated provider is madness. I sincerely hope the Government rethinks its plans to close the FSS. It might end up costing them a lot more money financing the miscarriages of justice appeals.

One response to “FSS closure: foolhardy & short-sighted”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Foolhardy? Possibly. Short sighted? Probably. But why then take up 1/2 your blog with an issue not relevant to the discussion (although important in itself).
    The FSS has made a great contribution to the research and implementation of DNA as a routine crime fighting technique. Outside of DNA, however, research has been woefully inadequate. A review of papers in “Science & Justice” (the journal of the Forensic Science Society) over the past 5 years shows the vast majority of research has been produced by private forensic science providers.
    What many people don’t appreciate is that police forces have been paying the FSS for their services for over 15 years; a legacy from Mrs Thatcher! The argument that results would be made to suit the paymasters, could equally apply to the FSS during this period but to my knowledge this didn’t happen. Private forensic companies have been providing services to the police for nearly as long; often providing better results quicker.
    Private forensic providers have quality systems in place at least equal to if not better than the FSS.
    When the first round of bidding for police work occurred some years ago, with the FSS in the prime position as “current provider” the FSS failed to maintain their position. They have subsequently lost out on successive bids based on quality, speed of delivery and, yes, price; which is what ultimately doomed them.
    The only unregulated source of forensic evidence comes, at present, from “in-house” police examinations and fire brigade evidence which is widely used by police and CPS in prosecutions and is already causing much concern amongst forensic scientists.
    Had there been only one forensic provider it is very likely that the killers of Damilola Taylor, Stephen Lawrence and others would still be walking the streets today. Likewise I have personal knowledge of many cases where private providers have produced evidence which has exonerated defendants charged on the basis of undisputed “official” forensic findings.
    That’s not to say that the FSS does not have some truly excellent, world class scientists but they have often struggled in an unsympathetic organisation.
    A robust scientific examination for the defence is, to me, axiomatic. A look at the horror stories from the US highlights the danger of un-challenged forensic evidence; and it is too much to expect the jury and judge to offer alternative scientific hypothesis even in these days of “CSI Miami/New York/etc”.
    I agree, there is a question here “why is forensic science the only part of the criminal justice prosecution system where charging occurs?” Should this, in fact, have stayed in the public service and the money used to fund a “defence wing” of forensic science – analogous to the CPS/ Public Defender Service?
    On a final note, the government e-petition “Save the FSS” has attracted (last time I looked) only 47 votes. FSS have/had a staff of around 2000. What does this tell us?

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