Zenith Crime Current Awareness

WITHER NOW FOR FORENSIC SCIENCE?

6 October 2015

Tom Storey

The Forensic Science Regulator has recently announced that she is to conduct a review of a series of cases involving allegations of sexual assault, in order to consider whether poor standards of forensic evidence gathering might be compromising the outcomes of such cases. This review is anticipated to take nine months, although it is not clear how many cases it is to involve, nor whether they will be limited to any geographical area(s).

In 2012, the Forensic Science Service was disbanded by the coalition government; the provision of forensic science services in the UK thereafter passed wholly into the private sector. Since then, there has been an increasing tendency to rely on cheaper techniques by the prosecuting authorities; one of the most obvious manifestations of this is the use of Streamlined Forensic Reporting. This procedure relies on a short (often one-page) report being served as part of the prosecution case (or sometimes merely disclosed), with a request being made of the defence at an early stage to either agree its contents, or to indicate what issues are disputed. It is clear that the prosecution are increasingly relying upon these documents as though they are full forensic reports, in the hope that they will be agreed by the defence and can form the subject of admissions at trial, thereby saving the expense of obtaining a full, proper, report. This appears to overlook the inconvenient fact that the National Streamlined Forensic Reporting Guidance specifically refers to them as not being “[reports] upon which the maker of the statement is necessarily qualified to give evidence.” However, it seems that it is far from unusual to find that a Streamlined Forensic Report which purports to “prove” that the Defendant’s DNA was found on a particular item from a crime scene was in fact produced by, say, the Crime Scene Investigator who seized the item in question, and who has no scientific qualifications whatsoever.

Independent forensic scientists are increasingly starting to warn that an over-reliance on cut-price techniques or services may lead (and may already have led) to miscarriages of justice. It should therefore be considered vital from a defence perspective to consider instructing a forensic expert in any case in which the prosecution purport to rely on forensic evidence, and even in some cases in which they do not. Issues that might be worth considering include the following:

  • Examination of items not selected by the prosecution for forensic examination;
  • Consideration of any negative findings, not necessarily included within Streamlined Forensic Reports;
  • Consideration of the implications arising from mixed DNA profiles, particularly given the increased sensitivity of the relatively new DNA 17 profiling technique.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what conclusions the Regulator comes to in nine months’ time; and, more significantly, how many miscarriages of justice occur as a result of cost-cutting or other inadequacies within the field of forensic evidence-gathering.

Current Awareness

By the Crime team