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Changes in Forensic Science – the unintended consequences

January 01 2012

Forensic Science Interpreting The Evidence

The last few years have seen major changes in the provision of forensic science to the Crown. From the monopoly of the Forensic Science Service, forensic supply to the prosecution is now divided between four main providers, several small players and the Police’s own internal laboratories. Different parts of the scientific evidence in a case may now be fragmented and dealt with by different suppliers. Based on our case work over the last twelve months, across the spectrum of forensic work, the unintended consequences of these structural changes have led to an increase in the number occasions when the veracity of the forensic evidence being presented should be challenged. I have picked a few examples that illustrate our recent experience.

One of the new laboratories reported finding a Class C drug in a powder. The defendant was adamant they were wrong.  Reanalysis found there were no drugs in the powder and the case was dropped.

Cannabis yield calculations are used to support charges of possession with intent to supply. A new entrant in providing statements for use by the prosecution uses a different methodology to that used by the Forensic Science Service. Their protocol results in much higher estimated yields. In some cases no consideration of the cultivation set-up or its sophistication has been taken. Successful challenges have been made as a result.

Where blood is found, patterns of blood staining have been ignored as the Police have authorised payment only for consideration of whose blood it is, rather than how it came to be there. Ignoring such information can be prejudicial to the case as the defendant’s version of events may be entirely consistent with the observed staining but has yet to be considered. Furthermore, this approach can be costly to the justice system at a later date: if an expert has not seen the stain before any destructive testing, e.g. swabbing, then the benefit of their opinion will not be available to the court.

In cases of alleged arson it is now rare that a forensic scientist will investigate the scene due to cost limitations and, indeed, sometimes a Fire Brigade investigator is not called either. One such case followed a fire in a communal housing block where the prosecution alleged that rubbish in a hallway had been deliberately ignited by the last person seen in the vicinity. The prosecution’s position was based on the report of the fire officer who attended the incident, but who was not a trained investigator, and a crime scene investigator who attended two weeks after the incident and took eight photographs. The level of investigation was insufficient to allow alternative explanations of the fire to be properly explored or eliminated.

The move to a competitive market place was made to save money for Police forces. The unintended consequences of fragmentation through reduced analysis, less sample collection and less frequent involvement of qualified experts means that the level of science behind prosecution reports is no longer always what we have previously come to expect.  Be prepared to take a fresh look at the forensic evidence in your case and ask not only about what has been presented, but also what might be missing.

Dr L Jane Bloor, Director
Keith Borer Consultants

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