November 30 2023

Threat to forensics ‘close to existential’, says regulator

Threat to forensics ‘close to existential’, says regulator

The threat to forensics science in the UK was ‘close to existential’, the regulator warned in her most strongly-worded warning about the precarious state of a sector that was ‘lurching from crisis to crisis’. Dr Gillian Tully, in her new annual report out today, called for ‘a complete rethink of the structure, funding and oversight’. ‘Minor alterations will not suffice,’ the regulator added.

Tully repeated her calls for statutory enforcement powers to ensure providers and police forces hit quality standards. As has been reported on the Justice Gap (here), 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 and in May the Metropolitan Police launched an urgent review of some 33 cases dating back to 2012, including 21 rapes. At the beginning of last year, the leading provider Key Forensics went into administration (here).

In 2012 the government dismantled the state-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) moving work to untested in-house police labs and private companies. There were concerns about the viability of a market in forensics. 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.

Currently the regulator sets the standards commercial providers and police forces need to hit but it has no power to enforce compliance despite, as the regulator points out, the government committing to introducing  powers in 2016.

‘It is clear that the government must give this office the legal authority to enforce these standards and ensure the quality of forensic science continues to improve,’ said Dr Gillian Tully. By way of illustration, she said that as of October 2018, only three police had met the regulator’s own non-legally binding deadline for meeting standards in fingerprint comparisons.

‘The strains from many years of funding restrictions continue to impact severely on forensic scientists in policing and the commercial sector,’ Tully writes in the report.

‘It is my view that profound changes to funding and governance are required to ensure that forensic science survives and begins to flourish rather than lurching from crisis to crisis. I hope that those with a mandate for funding and governance will tackle the problems once and for all, for the protection of justice rather than the protection of historic or current policies.’
Dr Gillian Tully

As a result of Key Forensic Services going to administration, Tull reported ‘insufficient capacity elsewhere for a range of types of casework, and each police force was subject to a cap on submissions’. This meant that some cases were not processed and there was ‘some evidence of an increased error rate… as well as an insustainable strain on staff working overtime’.

‘It is clear that commercial forensic science providers continue to be under significant financial strain. This represents a serious risk to quality, particularly in relation to the potential for loss of skilled scientists, some of whom have already been made redundant more than once,’ Tully writes. ‘It takes several years to train a graduate to become a forensic scientist and the most complex cases can only be effectively dealt with by those with a broad and deep level of knowledge and experience, which is becoming ever more difficult to achieve.’

The regulator also raised the issue of variable accreditation. The report noted that providers ‘operating to the correct quality standards has not yet been properly recognised by policing in their award of contracts’ and a large contract having recently been renewed with ‘a provider with significantly less accreditation’ than stipulated by the regulator.

Alongside the problems in the commercial sector, ‘similar strains’ were showing within forces’s own provision of forensics. ‘There is insufficient resource allocated to forensic units in policing for them to both deliver operationally and achieve the requisite quality standards. In digital forensics, the situation is exacerbated and there are reports of cases being discontinued because the digital evidence is not available.’

‘The regulator’s role concerns only quality standards; there is no economic regulator but clearly the financial issues represent real risks to quality. Public sector finances are limited everywhere, but the risks to forensic science provision are close to existential,’ she said.