Putting a price on the justice system

By Anna Sandiford 13/11/2011

I have already mentioned that many other forensic scientists around the world think that the British government’s decision to close the Forensic Science Service (FSS) was poor – not least because of the loss of knowledge from senior scientists and the lack of them having the time to transfer that knowledge to younger scientists because the closure has been so rapid. It now seems the government is having to defend its decision because of the strong feeling against that decision.

A document released by the British government (link in the article above) states as follows in relation to the growing private industry of forensic science providers in England & Wales:

In many ways the creation of a market for forensic science has been a success – turnaround times are faster, prices are lower and quality standards have increased. Unfortunately the FSS has been left with higher costs as a legacy of its previous status as a Government agency. As a result, the company has been unable to compete – its share of the market has reduced in every tender that has been held to provide forensic science services to the police. Against this backdrop, the forensics market has been shrinking due to falling prices as a result of increased competition and more effective control of forensic submission volumes by police forces. This has put the FSS in serious financial difficulty, with significant operating losses and the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensics services as police continue to drive efficiencies in their use of forensic services.

What I find interesting here is the suggestion that the forensics market has been shrinking. I suggest that it hasn’t been shrinking; it has just changed shape. If the market shrank then that would imply that there is less work. My experience is that this is not the case; there is just as much work out there – with increasing population comes increasing crime rates and increasing needs for forensic science. What has changed is the way the Police meet their needs for forensic science; more of it is now being done in-house and not necessarily by individuals to a standard for court presentation but perhaps to a standard suitable for intelligence purposes. The Police are having to be more careful how they spend their budgets because their budgets have been cut – by the government.

I have concerns with any industry that is supposed to make a profit when what they are providing is a service to the community – in this case, a service to the criminal justice system. It’s like trying to make hospitals make money. Is that really realistic? How do governments propose to make the Police make a profit?

The reaction of many people with whom I have discussed this is that eventually justice will suffer – either a guilty party will walk away or an innocent party will be convicted. My own experience of how this change has affected the forensic science industry in England is that there is now much more work in the independent sector – testing of the factual basis of the Crown’s cases has always been commonplace but now gaps, errors and flaws are being found.

An adversarial legal system allows for the evidence to be tested – including the science. If the science is not being done as well as it should or less work is being done because of budget cuts then that will inevitably result in the defence testing even more of the science than they already were (which was already a larger proportion than is routinely tested in New Zealand).

The government’s report also states:

By creating a healthy market for forensics, we will provide an environment where research and innovation can flourish. 

Much of the research undertaken by the FSS could not have been undertaken by private industry. If there is no money to be made from an area of research it is unlikely to be funded. The independent sector is working to tight budgets. These are being set, to a degree and in some circumstances, by the police forces themselves because they in turn have budgets to which they must adhere. There may just not be time to undertake any research. I know that when I worked in the independent sector in England there was no way that certain employers would fund any non-profitable research because at the end of the day they were running small businesses to make a profit, not to invest in research. Maybe the bigger players such as LGC Forensics can undertake we-don’t-know-if-it-will-make-money-but-we-might-develop-a-new-forensic-technique-that-will-revolutionise-forensic-science research, but the smaller operators just won’t be able to do that particularly if they have to pay for the cost of becoming UKAS or ISO 17025 accredited.

The British government may think it was saving money by closing the FSS – but by how much will the Legal Aid bill increase because the defence is now learning to more frequently test the science forming the basis of the Crown’s cases?

Can any financial saving the government makes be justified by potential miscarriages of justice or a reduction in the public’s perception of the ability of the legal system to catch the true criminals and let the wrongly-arrested walk free?

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