The closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) has caused ripples to run through the police service and create questions about the way that evidence may be dealt with in the future. As a Detective I am used to consulting on a daily basis with my colleagues over evidence recovered from both crime scenes and victims. The news that the FSS was to close and that the private market would meet the demand in its absence leads me to ask, conscious of existing cuts across the board to the police budget, how do we operate when forces and private enterprise need to obtain the best return for our money?
The way the individual labs operate is regulated by the government appointed Forensic Regulator, Andrew Rennison, who has spent over 30 years working at all ranks as a detective, including a period in charge of the scientific support functions in West Yorkshire. The regulator is appointed to provide independent advice on quality standards to the government and the criminal justice system. As such all service providers will have to work to set laboratory standards as laid out in the National Guidelines. But does this mean that there will be the same procedures across the board for the handling and examination of exhibits?
From having one base for evidence sent for forensic examination, forces have had to negotiate, sometimes in collaboration with others, to secure contracts that meet available budgets. The reality of the situation – crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum – maybe that whilst the service provider laboratory is contracted to a force, if the amount of submissions exceeds the work they can undertake will they have to sub-contract the work out? This could lead to challenges over continuity of evidence over which the police will have no control and will lead to an area open to be challenged at court. With the challenges to evidence at court, will the processes set in place for continuity of exhibits be the same from one service provider to another? Who will set these standards when they are all competing against each other and how will it affect cases as the procedures are established?
The FSS had a well established and internationally recognised system of continuing development of processes, research and innovation the benefits of which were felt by prosecution and defence alike. Advances in cases such as the recent Stephen Lawrence murder trial have lead to the conviction of offenders with evidence existing at the first trial but undiscovered without the technology subsequently developed by FSS.
If market forces mean having to keep one step ahead of your rivals, would private companies want to share technology openly at a cost to their own research investment? If advances are made it is imperative that the technology is available to all and avoids the so-called ‘postcode lottery’ so often associated with medical services. And what if research is needed for which there is no commercial value. Who provides that service?
With the closure of the FSS it was hoped that there would be an influx of the brightest and the best scientists into these new ventures. Sadly for me, there are many who I worked with over many years who I highly regarded as experts with years of providing evidence at court who have taken the opportunity to move on and, for example, becoming lecturers. These individuals will no longer have the ongoing accreditation required within their field and so their vast experience will be lost; maybe only temporarily as they may be convinced to return once the marketplace settles down. One of the saddest factors for me that will be lost is the ‘personal approach’. I have developed contacts that were willing to discuss a case over the phone at short notice, confer over submissions and advise on evidential benefit (or not) that would allow progress of a line of enquiry. Their advice would assist me in determining whether to apply further police resource or send further forensic submissions. In reality is this going to happen when there is a fee that could be paid for such advice? Will this mean that there is yet more paperwork to be submitted and delays in results over something that could have been dealt with in a five minute phone call recorded in a policy book for disclosure purposes?
I suppose it would be easy to suggest that it is a reaction to change and from conversations I have had recently, the expected ‘problem’ transitional period from closure of the FSS to the new service providers has gone relatively smoothly. The real factors behind quite how smoothly will become apparent in the months and years to come as matters are progressed through the court system and later potentially challenged. It is an uncertain time and I like many working within law enforcement and the legal profession await the developments ahead.
DS 5-0 is a serving detective sergeant with 17 years' experience who has worked in specialist child abuse and murder investigation teams. He has extensive experience of Crown Court trials.