The Forensic Science Regulator has highlighted the enormous damage that continuous cuts to police budgets and legal aid are inflicting on the criminal justice system in her latest annual report. Dr Gillian Tully urges the government to put the regulator on a statutory footing so she can enforce mandatory high standards.
Defence solicitors are criticised for repeatedly instructing poor quality 'experts'. Tully says she wants to introduce a quality standard for case reviews - but acknowledges that legal aid cuts in this make this difficult. Unless the system changes, Tully says that those who adopt a quality standard will be at a competitive disadvantage to those who do not adopt one.
Tully says in her report: 'It is inevitable that the adoption of quality standards has an associated cost, and in a system where the prime determinant of contract award is price, compliant organisations would be at a disadvantage. Furthermore, the adoption of quality standards in general is proportionately more costly for small organisations than large ones, and many case reviewers work in small organisations or as sole traders.'
Tully says experts have been required to give evidence based on interim forensic reports because some police forces have refused to pay for scientists to produce an admissible statement of evidence in court. Often there is little time left for practitioners to prepare reports on complex cases.
Commenting on her report, Tully said today: 'A year ago I warned that funding was too tight, and now even more money has been taken out of the system. We cannot continue on this path. I urge the government to put the role of the regulator on statutory footing now, to enable me to ensure that all organisations providing forensic science evidence in the criminal justice system meet the high standards required.'
The Forensic Science Regulator role was created in 2007 under Royal prerogative without any statutory basis or direct powers to enforce standards. In 2011, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology recommended the role should have statutory powers. The government agreed to review the idea.
Home Office officials have been working on a draft bill, Tully says. 'However, it is disappointing that given the length of time this issue has been under consideration, the level of support for statutory powers and the pressing need for these powers to be introduced, the bill is not part of the government's legislative programme,' she adds.