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Poor Practice in Fire Investigation Cases

November 01 2014

Forensic Science Interpreting The Evidence

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Fire Investigation

In April 2011 our colleague Dr David Schudel wrote, rather prophetically, on our website ‘the reality is that fire investigation in the UK is suffering more and more from budgetary cuts and lack of critical thinking.  Forensic scientists that used to be routinely involved in fire investigation are either no longer available or are not asked to attend, samples from fires are no longer sent for accelerant analysis (sometimes they are not even collected), documentation of scenes can lack important information and, overall, more and more cases are being brought without scientific investigation’.

Over three years down the line we are seeing more and more evidence of poor practice by prosecution ‘experts’ in the fire investigation cases we are asked to examine.  Their investigations are frequently shoddy and incomplete, key samples are not being taken and simple things like contemporaneous scene examination notes are non-existent or, we have found, have been willfully destroyed.

In a recent Crown Court case we were involved with, the case was dropped on the day of the trial after the Fire Service investigator had to admit he had no contemporaneous notes and was simply relying on his memory to recall the finer details of his scene investigation.

In other cases we have encountered it is apparent that great weight has been placed on ‘background information’ by prosecution investigators and this, rather than scientific examination and deduction, has apparently led them to reach the overall conclusion that a fire was deliberate rather than accidental.  We find that when investigators are challenged to stick to the scientific evidence, rather than conjecture, their opinions can often change.

Fire investigation is a well established branch of forensic science that has accepted procedures and methods which have been carefully developed over many years.  There should be no place these days for a quick look around a blackened scene in the middle of the night and the snapping of a few photographs.  To establish what evidence exists, scenes must be properly examined, recorded, documented and carefully excavated so that the evidence is preserved and not over-looked or compromised. Only in this way can the opinions offered by investigators have a robust basis, be sustained and properly independently checked by others at a later date.  Arson and fire-raising are serious cases that carry hefty sentences and the scenes must be properly investigated.

It is not often appreciated that the Fire Service has different levels of fire investigators (levels one to three) and few Fire Service staff have the training, equipment and/or facilities to properly take and store exhibits from scenes, so they can’t or don’t recover them.  Even where Crime Scene Investigators are attending fire scenes we often find that their only actions are to take photographs. Frequently we find that key items have not been seized and/or important debris samples have not been taken, for example where there is a suggestion that ignitable liquids may have been used.

It is certainly not the case that all prosecution fire investigators are poorly trained, inappropriately qualified or inexperienced; we simply find that an alarming number do not follow established best practice in the cases we encounter.

If you have a dispute about the cause of a fire we recommend you instruct a forensic scientist experienced in the scientific methods of fire investigation to assess the validity of the prosecution evidence.

If you have an arson or fire-raising case and would like an informal chat about it, please call Jenny Gray on 0191 332 4999 or Alan Henderson on 01835 822 511.

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