Challenging forensic science independence

By Anna Sandiford 12/10/2011

Probably one of the worst decisions made by the British government was to shut down the Forensic Science Service (FSS) – in my opinion. Not only has a raft of experience been lost, a world-leading research organisation has been shut down. This is not news.

What is news is that the Metropolitan Police is now apparently looking to employ 180 forensic scientists. This sounds sensible based on the fact that by closing the FSS, the government removed from the Met Police its forensic science supplier – this understandably created a massive operational gap that had to be filled. To the Met Police the most sensible way to fill that void is to employ the scientists directly.

Can you see the potential problem with that? Possible lack of independence.  Understably, the forensic science union is worried that members will not be allowed to remain independent if their employer is involved in arrest and investigation of what are deemed to be criminals prior to the trial process.

The UK has worked long and hard to move away from the problems of bias in the court room, but it is by no means complete.

Will it mean that scientists who were previously able to work independently have pressure applied to them to provide outcomes more helpful to the police than would otherwise be the case?
Or will the scientists who get jobs with the Met ultimately be the ones who are more likely to have a prosecution bias?
Or will the courts have to explore issues of impartiality, independence and scientific interpretation more thoroughly?
Or will the independent examination of items by independent scientists increase?
Or all of the above?

Independent examination of items/case review is something that is routinely undertaken in England and Wales, far more so than in NZ, so challenging potentially biased scientific evidence over there will be easier to do because lawyers generally know who to go to to ask for such a review and funding for the same is usually agreed without too much fuss or delay.  However, potentially or perceived biased evidence should preferably never reach the court room so adding another level to the system to check the work will add time and cost to the justice system. The government was trying to cut costs by closing the FSS…..

The England and Wales situation with respect to bias was bad in the past but things had made good progress.  As reported in a recent Guardian post:

The move will see the pendulum swing back 30 years to the time when the Metropolitan Police forensic laboratory provided the expert evidence for detectives. But the Met lab was merged in 1996 with the new Forensic Science Service to create a national forensic facility independent of the police – partly because of concerns over the independence of scientists working within the police.

The move is also seen by some lawyers as being backward:

Criminal lawyer Simon McKay said he felt a “considerable sense of unease” at the news. “The whole evolution of expert evidence over the last decade has been to continue to strive for experts to be able to demonstrate their independence and integrity in criminal jurisdictions. And this is completely regressive,” he said. “It was always going to be the natural consequence of closing down the FSS. Essentially these scientists are going to be working for the police.”

McKay cited historic miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the prosecution of Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell, as examples of the dangers of scientific experts working too closely with the police. The MP Chris Mullin said in the Commons in the aftermath of the Birmingham Six case that Dr Frank Skuse, the forensic scientist whose evidence helped convict the Birmingham Six, “conspired with police officers to pervert the course of justice.”

The problem is that the Met Police (and the other 40+ forces around the country) have to have forensic science provisions from somewhere but for whatever reason, the Met is not prepared to tender out the work to the already established independent forensic science providers such as Manloves or LGC.

The Met’s director of forensic services, Gary Pugh, is reported as saying, “To remove the FSS as a provider of forensic science services in twelve months will be an operational challenge of unprecedented magnitude,” he said. “(It) leaves the need for capacity to undertake forensic examinations in around 300 suspicious death investigations, 1,500 rape and sexually motivated crime case and 1,500 crimes of serious violence while also picking up a large legacy of cases.

“The MPS is developing a new operating model where the recovery, interpretation and reporting of forensic evidence will be undertaken by the MPS and the DNA profiling and analytical science will be undertaken by commercial providers.”

In order to maintain confidence in the improved image of independence in science in the court room, the cost-cutting exercise by the British government could cost more in the long run. All tax payers money, but just coming from different pots.

0 Responses to “Challenging forensic science independence”

  • Just loose (and naïve!) thoughts… this isn’t my patch, after all. You wonder if this means the Police will (eventually) have to replicate essentially what the FSS was – set it up the equivalent, then spin it out so that it’s independent? If so, you’d wonder if they couldn’t have just bought the company out, even literally. (Imagine if the top brass in the Police had a go at it just to annoy those in government circles…!)