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The dumbing down of forensics

The Forensic Science Service (FSS) is a Government-owned company. It provides services to police forces across England and Wales, together with other agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service, British Transport Police and HM Revenue & Customs. Since the early 1990s, the FSS has gradually progressed consequent upon decisions of the Governments of the day from a public to a commercial organisation, and a market developed in forensic services. The FSS competed with private forensic science providers and held around 60% market share in December 2010.  The McFarlane Report stated that the FSS must be provided with more funding to increase research.

On December 14th 2010 the Government (HMG) announced its intention to ‘support the wind-down of FSS, transferring or selling off as much of its operations as possible’ by March 2012. This was disingenuous as they had decided to close the FSS as part of the 2010 spending review. The wording was undoubtedly chosen to deflect any responsibility for the decision to close from HMG.

The decision to close the Forensic Science Service was taken without any of the consultation that one might expect.  There are a number of people and bodies that have close connection with the FSS.  They include HMG’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor Bernard Silverman and the Forensic Science Regulator who is responsible for ensuring the provision of forensic science services across the Criminal Justice System (CJS) and that providers have and adhere to an appropriate level of scientific quality standards.  Neither was aware of the decision to close the FSS until it was announced. In fact the only body consulted by the government in advance of their decision to close was ACPO, a body where audits carried out over many years has showed consistently poor knowledge and understanding of forensic science (e.g., Using Forensic Science effectively, ACPO/FSS/Audit Commission 1996).  Subsequently HMG sought to persuade the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons (ST&C) that the reason was it was losing £2 million a month which the ST&C found to be untrue in a damning report produced in June 2011.  Why should a constituent part of the CJS have to be profitable?

We are already back to the old days when police forces such as the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) had their own in house forensic laboratories.  These had poor quality standards and their staff were not quality assessed.  Moreover they could not be said to be independent as the FSS was because they served the force concerned and were not available or answerable to anyone else.  There is a serious concern that some of these laboratories will be ‘toy labs’ where the work done will not be done in accordance with the ISO 17025 as the police will seek to reduce their costs by designating certain work as ‘non forensic’ and therefore not needing to be compliant with that accreditation. Thus the collection, collating, classification and processing of samples are likely to be done by people without the relevant accreditation.  Scenes of Crime Officers and their training have been assessed regularly over the last 30 years and this, in common with ACPO, has consistently shown a poor level of understanding of the science and what it could do for them. One has only to recall the handling of exhibits in the Stephen Lawrence case to know how poor training and understanding affect the detection of crime. Moreover the focus of the police now is on cost and that will be the determining factor in the application of forensic science to a particular case.

The main customer of the private forensic science providers who will now supply the forensic science not done in house will be the police.  Their interest is to drive down the cost and that will inevitably affect the availability of skills needed to provide forensic science in areas other than DNA and blood analysis.  Over one thousand FSS forensic scientists have been made redundant in the closure and the majority will leave forensic science for good.  It is inevitable that some expertise will be lost forever.  The government told the science and technology committee it did not have any idea how many scientists will be lost to forensic science.  Driving down the cost by the largest bulk customer will impact on the cost of forensic science to others such as defendants in the CJS who will not have the clout to get services at a competitive price and who are already battling reduced legal aid provision.

The survival intact or at all of the unique FSS archive built up over many years and carefully preserved remains in doubt.  The government declines to say what will happen to it as they are seeking a financial solution that does not require government funding – they call it ‘examining the business case’.  Its preservation will require ongoing costs of warehousing, careful preservation and management.  The alternative is either destruction or the return of the material to the forces that provided it most of whom have no facilities for long term protection and preservation (even if they could afford it).  The chances of the many cold cases that remain being resolved would be negligible and a large and irreplaceable collection of evidence will be lost.  The lack of enthusiasm by the government to resolve this issue has led to their refusal to commit to an ongoing archive or to require forensic science providers to deposit in the archive material gathered in the future.

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Alastair Logan Posted by on February 3, 2012. Filed under Crime,Miscarriages of justice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

7 Responses to The dumbing down of forensics

  1. Anonymous Reply

    February 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Well, I dont know where you heard some of this but I feel a rehash coming on. The Met Police Forensic lab was, in its day, a world leader in forensic science. It had many of the precursor quality systems of ISO 17025 such as NAMAS accreditation. Many of its employees (yes, I was one) felt that meging with the FSS was the beggining of “dumbing down” and so it has turned out to be. The impartiallty of its scientists was recognised by the courts and those experts carrying out re-examinations on behalf of the defence. Not once in 18yrs did I feel pressured by a Met. police officer to obtain “the right result”
    I agree that there is a real issue with in-sourcing of forensic examinations without suitable accreditation but no-one seems to have made any fuss about the ever present and increasing use of fire brigade evidence; usually done without any notion of quality assurance or quality systems.
    The idea of a “carfully preserved” FSS archive is a nice one. Tell that to Sean Hodgson et al.

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