Possibility of miscarriages as a result of manipulation of drug tests at forensics lab
Almost 500 criminal investigations are being reviewed following allegations that test results at a forensics lab have been manipulated. The ‘major security breach’ was brought to light following an internal investigation at the Manchester site of the Randox Test Services (RTS) lab, which analyses blood, saliva and hair samples on behalf of police forces. Two lab employees have been arrested by Greater Manchester police on suspicion of perverting the court of justice.
The work carried out by the laboratory focuses mainly on the analysis of blood samples of people arrested for allegedly driving while under the influence of drugs. This security breach raises the prospect that hundreds of people could have been victims of miscarriages of justice thanks to convictions based on incorrect toxicology test results in their cases.
It is understood that while the samples themselves were not tampered with, the data against which they were measured was manipulated, therefore bringing the accuracy of the test into question. In a statement, RTS have stated that no alcohol samples were affected, and some tests could be ‘re-run to provide robust, uncompromised results.’
The National Police Chief’s Council forensic science lead, Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, confirmed that a criminal inquiry has been launched to investigate the ‘quality failure’ and stated that some 484 cases would need to be reviewed.
‘Randox has provided each force with a list of cases that could have been affected. Working in partnership with the Crown Prosecution Service, we have provided guidance to forces so they are able to review each case to determine if compromised data played a part in prosecution and the CPS will then take appropriate action in any cases identified.’
Simpson told the Daily Telegraph that it was a ‘possibility’ that defendants in criminal cases had been wrongly convicted. But went on to say that ‘in cases that are more serious it is very unusual that one single strand of evidence actually makes the case in its entirety. There is lots more evidence that is gathered.’
The independent, state-run Forensic Science Service was closed by the government in 2012 amid multi-million pound losses. Since then, forensic tests have either been completed in-house by police forces or sent out to private companies. However, emphasising the importance of reliable forensic testing, the official regulator Dr Gillian Tully stated last month that further cuts to the forensic science budget would compromise quality and damage the British justice system. ‘Spending on forensic science has gone down. We are approaching the stage where we are at the very limit of these cuts, and it cannot be cut further as quality will be compromised,’ she told the Guardian last month.
Analysis: Forensics on trial
‘Vague, incomplete and lacking in vision’ was the damning view of MPs of the government’s plan for the future of forensic science – as reported on the Justice Gap last October (here). There has been a longstanding concern that since the cack-handed dismantling of the government-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) back in 2012, a lack of direction in the sector would undermine the police’s attempt to catch criminals and lead to more miscarriages of justice. Jon Robins reports
Prior to its closure, the FSS handled more than 60% of forensic work ordered by the police on more than 120,000 cases a year. The government argued that the market was shrinking, that the service was haemorrhaging more than £2m a month and, in the new age of austerity, it had to go.
In March last year the Home Office finally published its forensics strategy outlining a national approach with an emphasis on quality management and standardization, the possibility of a joint forensics and biometrics service, and the need for oversight of the ‘supply chain’ including contingency plans in order to withstand ‘disruption to the market’.
Noting that the plan was already two years late, Dr Tania Mathias MP, acting chair of the House of Commons’ science and technology committee, said at the end of last year that ‘further delay would have been preferable to this inadequate document’.
The committee has been a consistent critic of the government’s forensics policy – there have been reports in 2011 and 2013. So vague was the ‘strategy’ that the MPs questioned whether it was really a strategy at all. ‘It is missing a coherent vision for forensic services and a route-map to deliver it,’ Mathias continued.
Earlier in the year the spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned that forces using their own unaccredited experts meant ‘a risk of service interruption, and lack of capacity’ which could ‘hold up criminal cases or cause them to collapse’. The dramatic fall in the number of forensic fibre experts, from 40 to just six, has been cited as evidence of problems with the market. ‘Since 2010 I estimate that we have lost 85% of our skills base in this vital forensic evidence type, and the volume of fibre cases has decreased by as much as 90%,’ wrote Tiernan Coyle for the Justice Gap in September 2015. Coyle, a forensic scientist of 16 years who was chief scientist at Contact Traces which has since folded. He acted in high profile cases such as the Lockerbie Bomber and Stephen Lawrence cases.
Back in 2011, the science and technology committee reflected on the fragility of a market that had become ‘distorted’ as increasingly police forces took work in house with ‘the police customer increasingly becoming the competitor’. The MPs were also highly critical of the circumstances in which the FSS was shut down. For example, there was a consultation process that did not bother to seek the views of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the CCRC, the government or Home Office’s chief scientists. It only approached the Attorney General in the final ‘clearance processes’.
In the latest science and technology committee report, the Forensic Science Regulator, Dr Gillian Tully identified ‘a major risk around unconscious bias’ arising from decisions about ‘what evidence was collected at the crime scene and what forensic tests were commissioned’. The MPs called for accreditation of all forensic laboratories and scientists, including police in-house services.
Hannah is a paralegal at BSB Solictors and is currently completing the BPTC at University of Law in London. She is commissioning editor for the Justice Gap and tweets at @hnnhw3