Forensic science ‘has reached breaking point’
Forensic science in England and Wales has plunged into crisis – raising the risk of crimes going unsolved and miscarriages of justice occurring, a new report warns.
Services that are pivotal to the criminal justice system are “in trouble”, according to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.
Peers suggested a number of factors had contributed to the problems, including an absence of high-level leadership and a lack of funding.
The “quality and delivery” of forensic science in England and Wales is “inadequate”, the report said.
It argued that unless failings are recognised and changes made, public trust will continue to be lost, adding: “Crimes may go unsolved and the number of miscarriages of justice may increase.
“Forensic science in England and Wales is in trouble. To ensure the delivery of justice, the time for action is now.”
The committee’s chairman, Lord Patel, warned that the current situation “cannot continue”.
He said: “Our forensic science provision has now reached breaking point and a complete overhaul is needed.
“If our recommendations are implemented and the Government adequately invests in forensic science, our forensic science market can return to a world-leading position.”
Forensic techniques including analysis of DNA, fingerprints and digital evidence play a major role in a range of criminal investigations.
Police forces in England and Wales spend around £300 million a year on forensic science services.
In-house law enforcement teams account for around 80% of the provision, with the rest of the work carried out by private providers.
The publicly-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) was controversially closed in 2012.
The committee said that, throughout its inquiry, it heard about a decline in forensic science, especially since the abolition of the FSS.
“We repeatedly heard that the system was not operating as it should and was in a state of crisis, presenting a threat of undermining trust in the criminal justice system,” the report said.
However, the committee noted that it did not hear convincing arguments in favour of resurrecting the FSS.
“Its loss was regrettable, but some aspects of forensic science provision, such as cost and turnaround time of routine cases, have improved in the last few years,” it said.
In other findings, the report claimed there has been a “serious deficit” of high-level leadership and oversight from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice.
Warning that forensic science providers are under “extreme pressure”, the peers said the instability of the market poses a “serious risk” to the criminal justice system.
The report criticised the Government over an “embarrassing” delay in giving the Forensic Science Regulator statutory powers that were promised in 2012.
It called for the regulator to be given powers to take action when failings emerge such as issuing improvement notices and fines, launching investigations and rescinding accreditation.
The committee also recommended the creation of an arms-length body to be responsible for the co-ordination, strategy and direction of forensic science.
Last week the Home Office published an action plan to improve police forensics after a review found the existing model needs to be strengthened by addressing regulatory, governance and capability issues.
The Government’s approach includes supporting a Private Member’s Bill to give the the regulator statutory enforcement powers.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Forensic science is an invaluable tool for bringing criminals to justice and it is vital it has the confidence of the public.
“That is why we commissioned a joint review of police forensics with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and developed a 13-point taking action plan to strengthen the market and address quality concerns.
“We will consider the findings of the report carefully and respond in due course.”
Forensic Science Regulator Dr Gillian Tully said: “This report makes clear that urgent action is required from the Government and the police in England and Wales if we are to maintain high scientific standards.
“I welcome the Committee adding to the repeated calls to grant this office statutory powers to uphold standards and ensure effective delivery of justice.
“While enforcement action would be a last resort, it is an important lever to enable the Forensic Science Regulator to have the impact it needs.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for forensic science James Vaughan said: “Police forces are committed to improving the quality of forensic science provision in the UK and I would argue that we remain a world leader in this field.
“Our criminal justice system relies on the quality of evidence supplied by our forensic scientists and as this report highlights, we must keep striving to deliver the best possible service to ensure we avoid miscarriages of justice.
“That is why we created the Transforming Forensics Programme, which will enable forces to achieve and maintain high quality, efficient and standardised processes whilst acting as a single voice on behalf of policing.”