Instability of the forensics was ‘a serious risk’ to the criminal justice system, warns report

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on twitter

Instability of the forensics was ‘a serious risk’ to the criminal justice system, warns report

The instability of the forensic science market was ‘a serious risk’ to the criminal justice system, according to a report published by the House of Lords’ science and technology committee. According to the new report out today, major crimes ‘could go unsolved’ and forensic science provision was ‘under threat’ as the police increasingly relied on unregulated ‘experts’ to examine samples from suspects and crime scenes in attempt to save money.

The peers have called for the creation of a Forensic Science Board to be responsible for the coordination and strategy of forensic science as well as increase in the powers and responsibilities of the Forensic Science Regulator. ‘The situation we are in cannot continue,’said Lord Patel, chairman of the committee. ‘Since 2012 the Home Office has made empty promises to give the Forensic Science Regulator statutory powers but still no action has been taken. We believe that seven years is an embarrassing amount of time to delay legislation; our forensic science provision has now reached breaking point and a complete overhaul is needed. ‘

The market in forensics has been hit by a run of scandals. At the end of last year more than 40 people had their convictions quashed following an investigation at the Randox forensic laboratory in Manchester. Some 2,700 cases had been retested and more than 10,500 were flagged as potentially affected by data tampering. The laboratory was used by all but one of our 43 police forces. In may 2018 the Metropolitan Police launched an urgent review of some 33 cases dating back to 2012, including 21 rapes.

These failures follow the government’s controversial dismantling of the government-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) in 2012 shifting its workload to untested in-house police labs and private companies. Prior to its closure, the FSS handled more than 60% of forensic work commissioned by the police. According to a survey conducted by the New Scientist more than three quarters of 365 scientists, including ex FSS employees, predicted that the service’s demise would lead to an increase in wrongful convictions.

Since 2012 there have been growing concerns of market failure. In 2015 the spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned that police forces using their own unaccredited experts posed ‘a risk of service interruption and lack of capacity’. Sir Brian Leveson, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, told the Lords committee that providers were under ‘significant financial strain’ and there was ‘a serious risk to quality’ as ‘skilled scientists’ left the field. ‘It takes years to train a forensic scientist,’ he warned.

‘When I was a student, England and Wales held, essentially, the international benchmark. It was the “Mecca” for forensic science. Some 30 years later, my observation from the outside … is that it has been an ongoing national crisis and, at this stage, is more of an example not to follow.’
Professor Claude Roux, director of Centre for Forensic Science, University of Technology, Sydney and president of the International Association of Forensic Sciences

‘Current levels of investment in forensic science research are inadequate and do not appear to reflect value to the criminal justice system. We believe that the Home Office has abdicated its responsibility for research in forensic science,’ the committee said. ‘We recommend that UK Research and Innovation urgently and substantially increase the amount of dedicated funding allocated to forensic science for both technological advances and foundational research, with a particular focus on digital forensic science evidence and the opportunities to develop further capabilities in artificial intelligence and machine learning.’

The market is dominated by three main providers (LGC Forensics, Key Forensic Services, and Orchid Cellmark Inc) all of which have experienced (in the words of the report) ‘some form of instability’ in the last year. Andrew Rennison, a commissioner at the Criminal Cases Review Commission and former Forensic Science Regulator, told the committee that in 2008, ‘there was probably £120 million being spent on forensic science. That is now down to about £50 million or £55 million’.

The Lords’ report argued that legal aid cuts had affected the ability of defendants to access forensic help and called on the Legal Aid Agency ‘to set new pricing schemes, properly funded by the Ministry of Justice, for forensic testing and expert advice for defendants’.

The Forensic Science Regulator, Dr Gillian Tully described the understanding of forensic science amongst lawyers and judges as ‘variable’. ‘Judgments have on occasion demonstrated a lack of understanding of the process of scientific reasoning,’ she said. ‘Forensic science is constantly developing; this can lead to difficulties for legal professionals in understanding the complex forensic science evidence presented, and its limitations.’

‘I believe injustices are occurring widely because of misunderstandings about the probative value of forensic match evidence,’ Professor Norman Fenton from the Alan Turing Institute told the Lords. ‘Specifically: what can we reasonably infer if there is evidence that some forensic ‘trace’ (which could be DNA, a fingerprint, a shoe mark, a fibre, etc) has a profile that matches the profile belonging to a particular person? It is widely (but wrongly) assumed that if the ‘trace’ is DNA or a fingerprint than the profile match is equivalent to an identification, i.e. that the trace must have come from the person. However, because many forensic traces from crime scenes are only ‘partial’ and may be subject to various types of contamination, the resulting ‘profile’ is not sufficient to ‘identify’ the person; many people would have a partial profile that matches.’