Forensic Science Regulator report suggests decline in industry quality

The Forensic Science Regulator published its annual report on 25 February. Dr Robert Green OBE, a forensic science expert at Kent, has expressed how industry quality standards are lacking and how this affects the justice system.

He said: ‘Once again we see a rather depressing annual commentary on the deplorable state that forensic science has been allowed to descend to. Remember, the UK was a pioneer in many aspects of forensic sciences and to see us in this (continued) shocking state is incredibly sad. Not too long ago, the UK might have been compared to the NASA of forensic science and look where we are now.

‘Forensic science is as strong as its weakest link and hence ‘any gaps in quality’ can affect all aspects of the criminal justice process. It is interesting to note that 1,100 unidentified crime scene samples, stored on the National DNA Database were confirmed as being contaminated by police officers and staff and had to be removed. Remember, upon loading to the DNA database, the matching rate is in excess of 50% and hence we will fail to identify over 600 who would otherwise face justice. What about those, perhaps wrongly accused, who might be exonerated if these samples had not been contaminated? What about those DNA samples which are contaminated and hence become mixed profiles that are interpretable and unable to be loaded to the database? 1,100 is very likely the tip of a very deep iceberg. Furthermore, one of the major dangers, is the items which are not (for whatever reason) submitted for forensic testing at all and may have the power to exonerate individuals falsely accused.

‘Those with only the remotest idea of quality will appreciate that the October deadline for police forces in England and Wales to be accredited looks increasingly unlikely. The important issue is whether or not they will be allowed to continue to undertake work when not accredited to internationally accepted quality standards. We seem to be operating here with two standards. Firstly, the external (often private sector) forensic science provider who must reach accepted quality accreditation. On the other hand, those services often carried out within the police service/prosecution agencies are allowed to continue with unaccredited systems, processes and procedures.

‘Despite the growing importance of CCTV evidence, the Regulator notes that no analysts (in England and Wales) are accredited to the required standards. Is it not about time the courts began to probe more in terms of quality accreditation and the acceptability of individuals’ evidence?

‘The decline of the profession in England and Wales is not something that has happened overnight but has been allowed to persist for several years now and will take much to draw this back from the brink. I’ve said repeatedly that a major failure of justice is just around the corner. Statutory powers will not (immediately at least) turn this ship around after many years adrift.’

Dr Robert Green is currently Director of Student Engagement for the School of Physical Sciences. He has almost 30 years’ practical experience working in the field of forensic science, teaching and policing study. During this period he has been responsible for the management of many serious and notable crime scenes. In addition he has undertaken much development work both in the UK and abroad and is the author of several national reviews of forensic science. For his services to forensic science he was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 2008. His interests are in the practical applications of forensic science to solve both minor and major crimes and leading undergraduate research in areas of toxicology; the analysis of legal highs as well as other biometric projects.

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