Forensic science in England and Wales “is in trouble” and, unless the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice act now, “crimes may go unsolved and the number of miscarriages of justice may increase”. To ensure the effective delivery of justice, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee has called for urgent reforms to forensic science in England and Wales in order to regain its world-class reputation.
The UK was once regarded as world-leading in forensic science, but an absence of high-level leadership, a lack of funding and an insufficient level of R&D now means the UK’s lagging behind others. According to the Committee, the forensic science market isn’t properly regulated, thereby creating a state of crisis and a threat to the criminal justice system.
Lord Patel, chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, said: “A free society is dependent on the rule of law which, in turn, relies on the equality of access to justice. Simultaneous budget cuts and reorganisation, together with exponential growth in the need for new services such as digital evidence, has placed forensic science providers under extreme pressure. The end result is a forensic science market which, unless properly regulated, will soon suffer the shocks of major forensic science providers going out of business and putting the justice system in jeopardy.”
Further, Lord Patel stated: “The situation we’re in cannot continue. Since 2012, the Home Office has made empty promises to give the Forensic Science Regulator statutory powers, but still no action has been taken. We believe that seven years is an embarrassing amount of time to delay legislation. 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.”
The delivery of justice depends on the integrity and accuracy of forensic science evidence and the trust that society has in it. According to the House of Lords Select Committee, these failings must be recognised and changes made.
Recommendations in the report
In its detailed 66-page report entitled ‘Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System: A Blueprint for Change’, the Committee makes several recommendations including the following:
*A Forensic Science Board should be created to deliver a new forensic science strategy and to take responsibility for forensic science in England and Wales
*The remit and resources of the Dr Gillian Tully, the Forensic Science Regulator, should be significantly reformed and expanded to include responsibility for regulating the market and, given a number of statutory powers, bolster trust in the quality of forensic science including: the issue of improvement notices and fines, the ability to rescind a forensic science provider’s accreditation and inspect, without notice, accredited forensic science providers
*The Legal Aid Agency should liaise with the market regulation arm within the expanded role of the Forensic Science Regulator to set new pricing schemes for forensic testing and expert advice for defendants
*The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office should invest in research of automation techniques for data retrieval and analysis to tackle the issues with digital forensic analysis
*To return the UK to its position as world-leading, a National Institute for Forensic Science should be created to set strategic priorities for forensic science R&D and to co=ordinate and direct research and funding
Keeping pace with developments
Commenting on the report, Dr Sarah Morris (senior lecturer in forensic computing at Cranfield University and who gave evidence in front of the House of Lords Select Committee) said: “It’s vital for the criminal justice system that digital forensics keeps pace with the latest technological developments. Digital forensics is a fast-paced field where each device, each software update and each operating system can have a significant impact, not only on the types of artefacts available but also their meaning.”
Dr Morris added: “The House of Lords Select Committee has rightly identified the gaps in understanding between forensic specialists and the legal profession. Too often, too much pressure is put on digital forensic investigators to conclude their investigations. There needs to be a greater understanding of the timescales involved in order to conduct a thorough analysis.”
Finally, Dr Morris said: “The Committee’s call for increased understanding of the field within the legal profession, increased research provision and greater collaboration between the various forensic science professionals is very welcome. I hope that the Home Office considers its recommendations and responds positively to them.”
Response from the Regulator