08:30, February 13 93 0 theguardian.com

2020-02-13 08:30:06
If the UK cares about justice, it must fund forensic services properly

In a case involving a knife attack in 2015 by a group of young people, one of the three victims who were stabbed was carrying a bag containing some of his clothes, which was discovered at the scene. When examined, the bag was found to have some blood on it that contained DNA matching one of the alleged attackers. To the prosecution – and potentially to a jury when the case went to court – the DNA evidence put the defendant squarely in the frame. Fortunately though, the prosecution’s forensic evidence was checked by a scientist employed by the defendant’s lawyer and paid for by legal aid (which is increasingly rare due to budget cuts).

The defendant’s scientist discovered that no record had been made of the position or nature – spots, splashes, smears – of the blood on the bag; no other information had been recorded that would have allowed any possible alternative explanations to be assessed; and the bag had been found at the base of a block of flats where the defendant lived, which meant that there could have been some entirely innocent explanation for the contact he’d had with it. The prosecution’s scientific evidence ended up being rejected.

Forensics is an essential component of justice – and the state of the science and its industry in the UK is only getting worse. Budget cuts in England and Wales are already resulting in more cases reaching the courts without the prosecution’s forensic evidence having been checked by a competent, experienced scientist working for the defence. This will inevitably lead to serious miscarriages of justice, with innocent people being wrongly convicted and guilty suspects going free.

Police in the UK have always had their own laboratories, dealing with fingerprinting and scenes-of-crime work. Other forensic services were provided almost exclusively by the government-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) and paid for by the Home Office. In 1991, when budgets for forensic services were devolved to the police, in an attempt to encourage them to be more selective of the items they sent for examination, a market began to open up. And by the time the FSS closed the last of its laboratories in 2012, private companies were providing a substantial proportion of forensic services for both the prosecution and defence. But when police budgets were subsequently cut, so too was their spending on forensic services in the private sector – by 50% compared to 2008, according to a report by the House of Lords science and technology select committee published in 2019.

What has happened during the past eight years is that the police have relied increasingly on their own in-house forensic laboratories. As a result, 80% of all forensic investigations for the 43 police forces in England and Wales are now carried out in laboratories within police stations, staffed by people employed directly by the police. And that’s a very worrying development for many reasons, not least because of the questions it raises about cognitive bias and whether the organisation responsible for identifying and prosecuting criminal suspects should also be providing the impartial, independent scientific evidence that might help to convict them. In fact, a report published in 2009 of a study commissioned by the US government explicitly recommended that forensic science (in the US) should be removed from the administrative control of the police and prosecution.

Another area of concern involves the way forensic science providers are accredited. Forensic accreditation – which determines quality and competence – is only mandatory for private providers, not police laboratories. This is despite recommendations from the government-appointed forensic science regulator, Dr Gillian Tully, to extend this requirement to the police’s own services. And with accreditation costing even modest-sized laboratories tens of thousands of pounds a year, and reduced demand for their services resulting from cutbacks in police spending, private companies are finding it increasingly difficult to remain viable. As those companies are lost, so too are valuable skills and services.

Another effect of the pressure on police to reduce costs is that they are selecting fewer evidential items for forensic examination. Without the in-depth knowledge and experience necessary to make informed choices, there is now the potential for vital evidence to be missed or lost, and for incomplete interpretation of results. And with many people – even lawyers – unaware that defendants need forensic scientists too, this lack of understanding means that potentially skewed forensic evidence will often go unchallenged.

During my 45-year career, there has been an extraordinary evolution in forensic science, which has given us the ability to solve almost any crime. What concerns me now is that, as a result of the mishandling and misinterpretation of forensic evidence by insufficiently experienced scientists working in an inappropriate environment, the provision of forensic services is on a path that will lead to more miscarriages of justice.

Among the recommendations for improving the quality of forensic services that I raised in evidence to the all party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice this month is the need to ensure that every organisation providing such services – including the police – is accredited to international standards, and that when forensic evidence is critical to a case, it is always checked by an experienced, independent forensic scientist on behalf of the defence.

Professor Angela Gallop CBE is a forensic scientist and author of When the Dogs Don’t Bark: a Forensic Scientist’s Search for the Truth

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