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Forensic Science in Parliament

March 01 2013

Forensic Science Interpreting The Evidence

In January, February and March 2013, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has been hearing more evidence on the state of Forensic Science in England & Wales, since the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) last year.  Rather worryingly, almost all panel members agreed that the government had no clear strategy on forensic science.  Some of the key points highlighted were:

The amount the police are spending on bought-in forensic services has fallen from £150 million two years ago to around £70 million today.  This was stated as being due to a combination of factors:  austerity measures implemented by police, more in-house screening tests being performed by police, cheaper forensic testing and a decline in overall crime rates.

The Forensic Service Provider (FSP) market continues in a state of flux with market shares depending on the outcome of never ending forensic tenders.  Currently LGC are the largest FSP with just under 50% of the market, but it was estimated that around 45% of the market has changed hands in the last 3-4 months alone, highlighting the disruption faced by both laboratories, police forces and the wider CJS alike.

Streamlined Forensic Reporting will continue to be rolled out across the country.  This is a staged reporting process, where only minimum forensic examinations (sufficient to engender a guilty plea) are carried out.  Forensic statements are very brief and outline only the result of a forensic examination, without the necessary case context or consideration for an evaluative opinion.  There is a real risk of the value of forensic results being overstated and, therefore, full forensic disclosure should always be requested in advance of a trial if you have any doubts about evidential worth.

Ironically, because the prosecution have done only limited work up front, we are finding a proper defence examination is involving more work, as often more tests are required to answer detailed questions about the significance of the evidence but, of course, at greater cost to the defence.

The continuing safety and access to the ‘Forensic Archive’ is a concern.  The remains of the FSS Archive has funding only to 2015.  Other FSPs and police forces are setting up their own archives of case material they have dealt with.  Over the years as new scientific techniques have been developed, archived material has been instrumental in securing convictions in cold case reviews and acquitting the innocent at appeal.  A coordinated national approach is needed.

Quality is always to the fore when scientific evidence is being considered in court.  The quality standard ISO17025 is favoured by the Forensic Regulator Andrew Rennison for forensic providers and forms the basis of his Codes of Practice and Conduct, published in December 2011.  As of November 2013, any police force not accredited in blood screening will not be allowed to carry out this testing.

The Committee explored whether or not the Legal Services Commission should stipulate ISO17025 accreditation as a requirement for funding.  They also discussed the need for lawyers to be trained in dealing with forensic evidence.

There was a general feeling that the Regulator should have statutory powers to protect the integrity of forensic science and ensure implementation of the Codes of Practice.  The plan for the next 5 years includes considering whether or not experts who provide reports to the defence ought or need to be accredited to ISO17025, regulation of medical forensics and also the interpretation of forensic results.

Post FSS, research & development in forensic science was described as “dire” by one panel member.  Currently, the UK has no way of funding research to maintain its (once) leading edge.  A Special Interest Group has been set up to provide a forum for both academics and FSPs to better plan and share research.

The Committee heard from Dr Evison of the Forensic Science Centre at Northumbria University who discussed whether the current forensic science market was healthy given the gross decline in the overall market.  He said:  “My preferred model would be one where the providers can be licensed to provide services and be able to do so at a cost that allows them to make a respectable, if modest, profit.  Then the market will be healthy.  At the moment, the situation where the police services can act as customers and competitors, and in a sense via the Home Office they are also the arbiters, looks like a model for disaster to me.”

Some of the grey-haired amongst you may recall it is not that long ago that the FSS was established to create a separation between the police and the science.  How the circle has turned!

Alison McBride, Marketing Manager & Forensic Scientist

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