UK forensic science in crisis – House of Lords report

uk forensic science
© iStock/Stephen Barnes

A report from the UK House of Lords has called for urgent reform of forensic science in England and Wales to avoid miscarriages of justice.

The Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System: A Blueprint for Change report, drawn up by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, identified what the report’s authors called “a serious deficit of high-level leadership and oversight of forensic science” on the part of the UK government, in particular the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. The Committee highlighted an array of causal factors including cuts to UK forensic science research budgets and legal aid, failure of regulatory oversight and the challenges presented by digitalisation; and called attention to a diminishing level of trust in forensic evidence on the part of the British public.

Over the course of its nine-month inquiry, the Committee heard evidence from representatives of government departments, academia, law enforcement, the legal and judicial sectors, the UK forensic science industry, public service bodies; and the British parliament. A number of prevailing issues affecting the delivery and quality of forensic evidence were exposed, including:

  • The UK Forensic Science Regulator operates with minimal resources and budget provision and lacks the statutory powers to enforce forensics standards across the justice system;
  • No strategy appears to be in place to address the exponential rise in digital forensic evidence;
  • The financial status of many privately administered UK forensic science companies is precarious, with the three main forensics providers having experienced significant financial difficulties in the last year;
  • The 43 different police authorities across the UK suffer from a lack of interdepartmental cooperation and coordination – some authorities conduct their forensics operations in-house, while others have outsourced forensic investigation to private firms since the closure of the national Forensic Science Service in 2012, with no consistency across authorities;
  • Cuts to legal aid funding have led to systemic inequality in terms of access to justice, with lower income defendants suffering from reduced access to forensic expertise; and
  • Research and development across the field of forensic science is similarly underfunded. The report advocated an urgent boost to investment in research and development, saying: “Current levels of investment in forensic science research are inadequate and do not appear to reflect value to the criminal justice system. We believe that the Home Office has abdicated its responsibility for research in forensic science.”

Lord Patel, Chairman of the Committee, said: “A free society is dependent on the rule of law which in turn relies on 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 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.

“The situation we are 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 Select Committee highlighted the world-leading status of UK forensic science provision and raised concerns that this status was at risk of diminishing worldwide; quoting a statement from the Forensic Science Regulator in March which said: “[P]rofound changes to funding and governance are required to ensure that forensic science survives and begins to flourish rather than lurching from crisis to crisis.” The Committee issued a number of recommendations to repair the country’s reputation and avert the risk of a projected increase in miscarriages of justice and commensurate loss of public trust, including:

  • Reform and expansion of the role of the UK Forensic Science Regulator, according the office with the statutory powers to promote good practice and regulate the forensics market by inspecting forensic service providers, issuing fines and improvement notices and, where necessary, revoking the official accreditation of forensics providers. The report noted: “Since 2012, the Government has given assurances that statutory powers needed by the regulator would be forthcoming but has taken no action. We consider that seven years is an embarrassing time to delay legislation, particularly as time has been found for several other Home Office Bills.”;
  • A Forensic Science Board to be established, with the remit to “deliver a new forensic science strategy and take responsibility for forensic science in England and Wales”;
  • The creation of a National Institute for Forensic Science, to operate under the umbrella of the UK’s research and innovation bodies, which will work in partnership with the police, the justice system, academic institutions and UK forensic science providers to “set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development[;] and to coordinate and direct research and funding”;
  • Increased liaison between the Legal Aid Agency and the forensic science industry – including the Forensic Science Regulator in its new, expanded role – to establish reasonable pricing systems for forensic evidence testing;
  • Mandatory training for legal representatives in basic scientific principles and the use of scientific evidence in court;
  • Increased investment in research and development of data retrieval from digital evidence, as well as the immediate development of a wide-ranging strategy covering the use, investigation and storage of digital forensic evidence; and
  • Dedicated funding for forensics research and development to increase “urgently and substantially”, with particular focus on digital evidence and the potential use of artificial intelligence in forensic data gathering.

The report’s summary concluded: “This report follows others that have raised similar concerns, yet the changes that are necessary have not been made, despite acknowledgements that they would be. Forensic science in England and Wales is in trouble. To ensure the delivery of justice, the time for action is now.”

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