‘Today’s orthodoxy may be tomorrow’s outdated learning,’ reflected Lord Justice Toulson when considering a case where the evidence of expert scientific witnesses was central to the case.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.