Law: When justice is blinded by science: Evidence from expert witnesses often forms the basis of a prosecution case. But their claims can be wrong, warns Fiona Bawdon

A MAN was accused of robbing a jewellery shop in Hatton Garden, London, after police forensic evidence suggested that hair found at the scene matched his own. An independent forensic expert employed by the man's solicitor was able to show that in fact the hair had come from a dog.

A young mother was charged with her six-week-old baby's death after she had dosed it with barbiturates in an attempt to make it sleep. On the morning of the trial, the police forensic expert realised that a decimal point had appeared in the wrong place in his report, multiplying the amount of the drug supposedly found in the baby's body by a factor of 10. The true level could not have killed the child. It had been a victim of cot death.

Despite these and other instances of scientists getting it wrong, including the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven, many lawyers continue to regard forensic evidence by the prosecution as unassailable.

Andrew Hall, a barrister at Doughty Street chambers, says that the commercial considerations of those marketing DNA testing techniques are partly to blame. 'It's not in their interest to suggest that this sort of evidence can be questioned.' he says.

In its evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, Forensic Access, a company that provides forensic science services to defence lawyers, warns: 'There is a popular misconception that (forensic science) provides an especially pure and objective form of evidence.'

Forensic scientists may give evidence of opinion as well as fact, the company says. 'Dangers arise if the court, and perhaps the scientist himself, is unclear which is which.'

Dr Angela Gallop, the founder of Forensic Access and a former Home Office forensic scientist, says that scientific evidence should be probed to expose weaknesses or areas of reasonable doubt. 'A number of lawyers admit that they regard forensic evidence as a closed book,' she says.

The need for defence lawyers to challenge police forensic evidence is likely to increase since the quality of prosecution evidence may be on the decline. In 1991 police forces were given budgets to buy expert help. As a result, some forces have stopped using the Home Office Forensic Science Service and have started shopping around for the cheapest deal.

Dr Gallop says there is no shortage of laboratories keen to develop forensic science as a sideline. She claims to have come across three cases in the past year in which police evidence provided by a substandard laboratory was seriously flawed.

'In one case, the handling procedures were so poor that the scientist could well have manufactured all the evidence he claimed to have found,' she says.

In this instance Dr Gallop was able to persuade the police that its forensic evidence was 'so deeply flawed, the best thing to do was to forget all about it'. Despite this episode, she believes other police units may continue to use this laboratory.

Difficulties may arise outside the laboratory also. Careless investigative procedures can result in police unwittingly manufacturing evidence. Dr Gallop cites the case of a man accused of breaking into a newsagency who was found to have glass fragments on his clothing that matched those from the shop. She showed that the fragments could have been transferred from the hands or clothing of the arresting police officers.

In another case, a rape suspect was put in a police car in which the victim had been sitting a few hours earlier. In this case, the defence scientist was able to show that fibres found on the suspect's clothing could have been transferred from the car seat.

Dr Gallop says that only those with many years' experience in criminal work are capable of such insights. At present, however, forensic science is completely unregulated. 'Any Tom, Dick or Harry with a scientific background or just a plain brass neck can set themselves up as an expert,' she says.

The Law Society accepts that it is difficult for lawyers to know which experts are legitimate. Roger Ede, secretary to the society's criminal law committee, says: 'The problem is that as far as most solicitors are concerned, so long as a scientist has a white coat and a laboratory, he must be able to do everything.'

The society operates an expert witness service, but Mr Ede says that its vetting procedures are limited: 'We ask about qualifications, but we don't have the resources to make the sort of inquiries that we believe ought to be made.'

Many of the directories and bodies that provide details of expert witnesses face the same problem. Like Forensic Access, the Law Society is urging the Royal Commission to introduce a system of recognised qualifications and minimum standards for forensic scientists. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology also is expected to make recommendations in this area.

Dr Gallop wants to see changes in the Legal Aid Board's attitude towards solicitors who want to challenge prosecution forensic evidence. 'At worst,' she says, 'the legal aid authorities may withhold funding altogether, because, in their lay view, the prosecution case is unassailable.'

She cites the case of a rape suspect who was refused funding for an independent forensic report. Fortunately, his family was able to raise the money for the tests. The prosecution failed to prove its case and the man was acquitted at trial.

In other cases, the Legal Aid Board may be prepared to pay only for a cheaper, local laboratory. 'Whatever the board assumes, proper forensic scientists are thin on the ground, and there is often no expert advice to be had locally,' Dr Gallop says.

She also claims that the board may be referring firms to the wrong type of expert, suggesting, for example, an analytical chemist for a strangling case. 'A case such as this needs a forensic biologist who is experienced in crime- scene investigation,' she says.

George Ritchie, a legal adviser to the Legal Aid Board, denies that specific recommendations are made about which expert to use. 'We do have to take cost into account and will sometimes suggest a cheaper expert,' he says. 'It is a difficult issue. But if you want to travel from A to B and a Mini will do, why pay for a Rolls-Royce?'

He says that the board's area committees, made up of practising lawyers, decide on funding for forensic science work. 'Members of the committees can't be expected to know everything about everything,' he says. 'So the onus is on the solicitor to convince them that authority for funding should be granted.'

If an application is rejected, a solicitor can reapply with more information, he says.

Tony Edwards, a partner with T V Edwards, agrees that prior authority for funding can usually be obtained. 'The problem is that it is the most dreadful rigmarole,' he says. 'Collecting all the information can take two or three weeks, and often you don't have two or three weeks.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links