The London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association
Thursday, July 05, 2012Author: Kerri Allen @ 11:38:59 AM
The government-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) officially closed its doors at the end of March 2012. Its origins date back to the 1930s and its closure sees the end of over 75 years of accumulated forensic science knowledge, expertise and research.
Prior to the closure announcement in December 2010, the FSS had a 60% market share (www.publications.parliament.uk). Now, the market remains with one major provider, LGC Forensics, with the balance divided among a number of smaller providers, including Orchid Cellmark and Key Forensic Services.
The forensic market has shrunk dramatically in recent years. In 2008/09, available revenue was £175m but had dropped to £138m by 2010/11 (National Police Improvement Agency figures). This trend looks set to continue, given the restrictions on police budgets and the increase in forensic work being taken in-house by some police forces.
Many of these police forces have taken on ex-FSS staff, particularly the Metropolitan Police Service laboratory which employed over 100. Despite this, the FSS closure has haemorrhaged experience from the market-place. In 2010, the FSS employed 1,300 scientists but estimates that only 200 continue to provide forensic services directly to the police and the courts. Moreover, for many of these scientists, their full range of skills and expertise is not being utilised and the most experienced have been the least likely to find employment with private forensic providers, who have employed more junior staff at lower cost. Only one of the FSS’s principal scientists, a group recognised nationally and internationally as leaders in their fields, has taken employment with a private provider.
The requirement for providers of laboratory-based forensic services to be accredited by October 2013 (forensic regulator’s codes of practice and conduct, December 2011) has restricted the range of work carried out by in-house police laboratories, at least in the short term. Many analytical services, such as DNA profiling, are bought from other providers.
Although police in-sourcing may appear to provide results quickly and at low cost, it results in several scientists processing different parts of a case – giving rise to problems which are not immediately obvious.
Consider a hypothetical case. A man has been injured. A suspect’s clothing is examined for blood at a police laboratory by scientist A. Blood is found and a small part of the stain is sent to a private provider who prepares a DNA profile, interpreted by scientist B. The DNA result is not seen by scientist A, who may only receive a copy of scientist B’s report. The bloodstain is not seen by scientist B.
If the DNA result is a single, clean profile, matching the victim, and the bloodstain was reasonably strong and in good condition, then a logical assumption is that the DNA came from the blood and therefore the blood could be the victim’s. However, if the stain was weak, or if the DNA result indicates a mixture of DNA from more than one person, the DNA interpretation becomes critical in determining which part, if any, of the DNA detected can be attributed to the blood. There is a high risk, with increased fragmentation, that this part of the interpretation is not carried out; in this situation, it is crucial that the scientists are explicit in their reports so that the court does not make a false assumption. If called to give evidence, however, neither scientist may individually have the information required to assist the court with this assessment.
If two scientists have worked on a case, then both may be required to attend court, increasing costs. DNA interpretations may be carried out by more than one scientist (possibly even in different organisations), increasing further the number of experts involved.
The glue that holds all the parts together, particularly in a complex case, may be missing, paving the way for gaps in the science and the interpretation of the findings, to the detriment of the court and the interests of justice.
The Association of Forensic Science Providers sets out the standards that an expert should follow to perform an evaluative interpretation using a pair of propositions, representing the prosecution and defence version of events respectively (Science and Justice 49 (2009) p161-164). Using the guiding principles of balance, logic, robustness and transparency, the expert should formulate his opinion, where appropriate including an evidential weight – the expression of the extent to which the scientific findings support one of the two competing propositions. This evaluation is a vital part of the expert’s role but can be time-consuming and therefore costly and it is dangerous to leave the court to make these often complex assessments itself. The risk is that these evaluations will not be carried out either because none of the scientists are in possession of all of the scientific findings, or because of the cost implications.
The combination of cost-cutting in a shrinking market and loss of swathes of forensic skills presents significant challenges for forensic science and its contribution to the criminal justice system. The potential risks are many, and include key evidence being missed or discarded as un-interpretable, and the increased potential for undiscovered errors or misinterpretations. There are also wider implications for the maintenance and development of standards in forensic science and for scientific research and development.
Are the recently reported contamination issues with a private forensic provider symptomatic of the pressures of putting an exacting science into an increasingly demanding commercial environment?
Perhaps these are isolated incidents which can happen in any organisation, which can be learned from and quality improved as a result. A huge body of FSS knowledge has been dispersed by the closure.
However, it is reassuring that a number of the most senior FSS scientists have become freelance consultants and remain in the forensic arena to assist in mitigating the risks posed by the new market. They are dedicated and passionate scientists who wish to continue to work in the interests of an effective criminal justice system. It will take time for things to settle down and only then will we see the true repercussions of the FSS closure.
– Kerri Allen, Forensic Consultant, Forensic Context Ltd