Forensic science once held a certain glamour, but successful appeals in the cases of the Maguire family and the Birmingham Six discredited the forensic work involved and fostered mistrust of the discipline.
However, the biggest threat to the use of forensic science in our courts is not mistrust. The main threat came about two years ago, when the Home Office Forensic Science Service (FSS) became an 'executive agency', held at arm's length from government until it is able to become self-supporting. The agency was given strict financial targets for its work and from that time, its scientists have had to charge the police for each item sent in for analysis.
As forces seek to cut the cost of investigations, so they have come under pressure to limit the help they seek from forensic teams. Some are reluctant even to call a scientist to the scene of a crime, where key decisions are made not just in gathering clues, but in selecting items for testing that could shape a murder or rape inquiry. Scene-of-crime officers, rather than scientists, are now making these vital early choices.
Angela Gallop, a scientist who left the Home Office to set up Forensic Access, an independent company specialising in defence work, says the colleagues she left behind are despondent. 'They have to spend so long concentrating on the financial side of things and meeting their daily quota. I'm not convinced that the market forces approach is the right way to arrange the funding of something as vital to the police as forensic science.'
The Home Office insists that the FSS will break even this year. But Dr Gallop says its scientists fear that at least one of its six laboratories may have to close. The alternative is to put up charges for the police, or persuade them to use forensic expertise more often.
'What is happening is very alarming, and we are beginning to see the effect of all this on cases,' Dr Gallop says. She cites recent examples where she had to work entirely from photographs of the scene of a crime. She fears that police forces are turning to sub-standard laboratories to save money. Such places undercut prices, but can only do so because they are cutting corners on tests, she says. 'Forensic science can be a tremendously powerful tool, but it's a bit like fireworks. You must be careful of it, know what to expect and what the safeguards must be.'
One key cause for concern is the lack of consistency in the training of young forensic scientists, for whom there is no formal accreditation system. In July last year the need for an independent forensic science advisory council to oversee standards was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. But the Government has yet to respond, and for now more or less anybody can set up as a forensic analyst.
'I'm constantly horrified at what is rated as expert work that turns out to be positively misleading,' Dr Gallop says.
Aspiring forensic scientists have two main routes by which they can enter the field. After a first science-based degree, they can apply to the Metropolitan Police, which has its own internal training scheme, or direct to one of the Home Office laboratories. Alternatively, they can take the specialist degree course on offer at Strathclyde University, which is alone in Britain in offering an undergraduate course with the word 'forensic' in its title. It is also one of only two that run postgraduate courses, the other being King's College, London.
Brian Caddy, head of the Strathclyde department, wants Britain to create a national forensic science institute to help to restore the credibility and confidence of the discipline. 'The miscarriage of justice cases had a very severe effect on morale, especially since they came at about the same time as the reorganisation of the FSS into a corporate-style agency,' he says.
Professor Caddy was on the board of six scientists convened to examine evidence in the Maguire case. He also worked for the appellants in the failed appeal of the Birmingham Six in 1987. His vision is of a centre that could become a national focus for forensic work, providing advice to the legal profession, research on new techniques and accredited training courses.
He, of course, has Strathclyde in mind as a candidate. His is the only university department in Britain that gets involved in forensic casework for the courts. It works on around 100 cases a year, mainly for the defence. These range from drink-driving offences, drugs and fire analysis to advising on DNA evidence.
In the laboratory recently, MSc students were working on Elisa (enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay) tests. These can determine blood group from saliva in a test so sensitive that it will work on the tiniest sample - even that taken from a discarded cigarette butt.
Professor Caddy said part of the problem for forensic science lies in poor training of lawyers. 'It is vital that lawyers understand exactly what forensic science can and cannot achieve. In general, the legal profession is scathing about forensic science, and reluctant to seek help from specialists,' he says.
In a small way, Professor Caddy is trying to remedy this. He gives lectures to law students at the university. One recent example was a discourse on glass. His legal students were rapt as they heard how scientists can analyse the number of glass fragments on a person's clothing. They have found that about half of them will have fallen off within half an hour. In a recent case, scientists found around 200 tiny pieces of glass on a jumper, long after a crime - far more than should have been there. The suspicion was that these had been put on the clothing on purpose to frame someone else.
One PhD student visiting Strathclyde from the United States had a view of the state of British forensic science informed by lessons learnt by the American system. Jim Hamby, director of a state forensic laboratory in Indianapolis, warns the UK of the drawbacks of a forensic science service fragmented between state and private laboratories.
In his view, executive status for science laboratories can only be detrimental. 'Forensic science should serve the community. Britain was the birthplace of the discipline, and some of its best work has taken place here. Certain public sector entities are not privatisable. The US has tried it, and found it really isn't the way forward.'
In an article on 3 January on the Science page, we stated that Strathclyde University is alone in Britain in offering an undergraduate degree course with the word 'forensic' in its title. The University of Bradford asks us to point out that it runs an undergraduate course entitled 'Chemistry with pharmaceutical and forensic science.'