Privatisation is a catastrophe, warns godfather of forensics

Abolition of Forensic Science Service has led to miscarriages of justice, says DNA pioneer

The privatisation of forensic testing in Britain is leading to catastrophic failures and potential miscarriages of justice, the pioneer of mass DNA profiling has warned.

In a damning indictment of the new system of forensic testing, Professor Peter Gill said the "wheels were already falling off" following the switch to private providers and police labs from the loss-making Forensic Science Service (FSS), which closed its doors for the last time at the weekend. He has called for thousands of criminal cases to be reviewed following high-profile blunders by the country's biggest private testing centre, LGC. The mistakes have also led to calls for a public inquiry.

The FSS, which carried out 60 per cent of forensic work in Britain when the Government announced its closure in December 2010, finally shut down at the weekend with only its archives retained for historic reviews. The Government blamed monthly £2m losses but its closure leaves Britain as the only major country without a national forensics service. Professor Gill, who co-wrote the first scientific paper on uses of DNA for forensic science and led the work which set up the national database, quit the FSS in 2008 in protest at the agency's increasing commercialisation.

Professor Gill and other critics claim the changes over the past decade led to:

* the loss of niche technical skills including fibre analysis;

* forensic material from the same crime split between different providers;

* the end of expensive, ground-breaking research that contributed to some remarkable breakthroughs;

* the outsourcing of cases because private companies cannot cope with the surge in cases.

The LGC errors included the contamination between two samples in a lab. In one rape case it led to a false finding linking an innocent man to the crime scene. It was revealed last week the company also accidentally created a non-existent suspect during the inquiry into Gareth Williams, the MI6 worker whose body was found inside a bag at his London flat – leading police up a blind alley for more than a year.

The forensic science regulator said it had checked 26,000 samples after the rape-case error and said it found no other problems. But Professor Gill expressed doubt over the inquiry's findings.

"The only way forward is for the courts individually to reconsider the affected cases via the appeal procedure... otherwise it seems to me that there is a significant possibility of miscarriage of justice in the cases that comprise the affected batch of samples," he said.

"I'm surprised that the wheels are falling off so quickly. I didn't think we'd hear anything for two years – not a couple of weeks. You can be absolutely certain this is not being picked up in all cases. It's just the tip of the iceberg."

Professor Gill's criticisms followed a survey in February in the New Scientist magazine which found that 75 per cent of forensic scientists who responded believed that miscarriages of justice were more likely under the new system.

Alastair Logan, the solicitor who represented the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, said the Government would be forced to restart a state-run forensic service "in 10 to 15 years when the miscarriages of justice start to happen".

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The Forensic Science Service was making huge losses. The wind-down of the FSS has ensured the police and the criminal-justice system continue to have the forensics capability they need to bring criminals to justice."

LGC said it took on a temporary staff for a short period during the transfer of work from FSS. "LGC manages all aspects of cases that are sent to us," it said.

DNA testing: landmark cases

Colin Pitchfork

In 1987, Pitchfork was the first person in Britain to be convicted of murder based on DNA identification, developed two years earlier by Alec Jeffreys, a professor of genetics at Leicester University. The case involved the rape and murder of two girls in Leicestershire in the 1980s. The DNA evidence also cleared a man previously convicted for the killings. The screening of 5,000 men failed to obtain a match with semen found at the scene, but Pitchfork was finally arrested after a man boasted that he had been paid to give a semen sample on his behalf. Pitchfork was jailed for life.

Craig Harman

Harman was the first person in the world prosecuted using "familial" testing developed by the FSS. He killed a lorry driver by throwing a brick through the windscreen from a motorway footbridge. Using a partial DNA trace from the brick, the national DNA database was trawled to find anyone with similar DNA, i.e., a relative. This led to Harman, who admitted manslaughter in 2004 and was jailed for six years.

News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
i100
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
media
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz