The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has called for urgent reforms to forensic science in England and Wales, which it says is in a state of crisis and causing serious concerns about the validity of scientific evidence.
Chairman of the Committee Lord Patel said: “Simultaneous budget cuts and reorganisation, together with exponential growth in the need for new services such as digital evidence has put forensic science providers under extreme pressure.
“The 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 justice in jeopardy,” he said.
The committee has made recommendations including the creation of both a Forensic Science Board to deliver a new science strategy and a National Institute for Forensic Science to set priorities for forensic R&D and to coordinate funding.
It has also proposed reforms to the remit and resources of the Forensic Science Regulator, including that it be given statutory powers; that Legal Aid Agency should liaise with the Forensic Science Regulator to set new pricing schemes for forensic testing; and that Ministry of Justice and the Home Office should invest in R&D of automation techniques for data retrieval and analysis.
Elsewhere in the report, the committee highlighted a lack of consistency in how police authorities commission forensic science services. Since the closure of the Forensic Science Service in 2012, certain types of forensic science analysis are carried out in-house, including for fingerprint analyses and digital forensics, while others are outsourced to unregulated providers.
Other areas of concern were that private forensic science market providers have suffered financial difficulties – including Key Forensic Services going into administration and Randox Testing Services being suspended from providing toxicology services – and that cuts to legal aid have affected the ability of defendants to access forensic science expertise.
The committee was told by UKRI that over the last 10 years only £56 million had been spent on 150 studies relating to forensic science – around 0.1% of UKRI expenditure in that timeframe.
Andrew Rennison at the Criminal Cases Review Commission and former Forensic Science Regulator, estimated that this number is down from £120 million in 2008.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of trade union Prospect, which represents public and private sector scientists among its members, has voiced scepticism over the effectiveness of the committee report.
“Our members worry that, as with so many things, this will be used as a cost-cutting exercise and not as a means to improve the service,” he said. “Larger forces will have to pick up the additional work from smaller forces, increasing the burden overall and further degrading the ability of forensics services to do their job properly.”