Diluting the quality of forensic evidence will have grievous results.
In January, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report, The Home Office’s oversight of forensic services. This confirmed the worst fears of those who warned that closing the Forensic Science Service (FSS) would seriously damage the criminal justice system.
The decision to close the service was made in secret in 2010: the lord chief justice, the government’s chief scientific officer, the director of public prosecutions, the attorney general and even the Forensic Science Regulator had no idea that it was planned. England and Wales are now the only countries in the world in which forensic science is entirely in the hands of either the police, or private forensic science providers whose principal customer is the police. In-house police laboratory work has increased dramatically.
In its report, the NAO found that police laboratories could be operating cheaply. They are not subject to internationally recognised accreditation standards and can undercut private providers.
Private providers must comply with the regulator’s standards. But the NAO expressed concern that if a major player in the private market were to withdraw, this would spark a crisis within the criminal justice system. It said there was already evidence that smaller providers are pulling out of the market.
Private providers told the NAO that there was no level playing field between them and the police in-house facilities, and declining profits could make it difficult to invest sufficiently in research and development – a function which the FSS had carried out.
Doubts have also been expressed over the effectiveness of Home Office oversight and the lack of systematic collection of information. Data was incomplete, inconsistent and in some cases difficult to access.
The FSS was a world leader in the field of forensic science, with techniques including DNA evidence a credit to its research. Despite its pioneering development department and the essential service it provided to the criminal justice system, the government deemed it to be losing money and closed it. It is worth noting that other parts of the criminal justice system do not make a profit.
A survey of forensic scientists carried out by New Scientist (75% of the scientists responded) had already shown that they were almost all concerned by the consequences of closure. Over 60% thought that it would result in an increase in miscarriages of justice, and that in-house police labs would reduce impartiality in interpretation, and therefore accuracy of evidence.
Professor Peter Gill, pioneer of mass genetic profiling, predicted that the shift to in-house DNA testing would be ‘disastrous’, with scientists under pressure to come up with results to secure convictions. He said ‘forensic science is now becoming police-controlled.
It’s difficult enough when you’re not working for the police; you’re put under a lot of pressure to report what the police want you to report. If you’re not protected from that, then the more vulnerable forensic scientists are going to report cases wrongly. I’m absolutely convinced this is happening now.’
Anyone interested in ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system should be seriously concerned about police control over forensic science and their failure to meet internationally recognised accreditation standards. The quality of forensic evidence is already suffering, along with the scope for research and development. Breadth of expertise will continue to decline.
And if private provision collapses because providers withdraw, criminal defence teams will be forced to seek expertise abroad.
There is a real probability that miscarriages will occur because of junk science; manipulated information provided to scientists by the police; poor or absent standards affecting the quality of the evidence; and absent provision for the defence to test the forensic evidence.
Alastair Logan OBE is a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee