CSI chief condemns forensic cuts

Nina Lakhani
Sunday 09 January 2011 01:00

America's top forensic scientist has warned that axing the UK's Forensic Science Service (FSS) will increase the risk of miscarriages of justice.

Joseph Bono, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, in effect the US' most senior CSI, has written to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, urging them to stop the planned closure of the FSS which is reportedly losing £2m a month. He says that handing over forensic science responsibilities to an untested privatised system will have “serious repercussions” for Britain's next major case and is not in the best interest of its citizens.

Dr Bono's intervention comes after a number of leading forensic scientists wrote a letter condemning the closure in The Times. The government faces growing international criticism for axing the FSS, an organisation which has led the world in forensic science research including pioneering DNA analysis. In his letter, Dr Bono writes: “To take the expertise currently available to the people of the UK through the FSS and move it into an untested system is tenuous at best. Any new system “might work”; the FSS “does work”.

The FSS provides more than 60 per cent of the country’s forensic analysis; the rest is provided by a number of highly regarded private companies, some smaller ones, and most controversially, an increasing number of police laboratories, which have proliferated as forces try to cut costs. A lack of economic regulation within the industry has allowed private companies to undercut the FSS and cherry pick the most profitable services.

A number of eminent forensic scientists have privately expressed concerns to the IoS about the expansion of police labs - where scientists working for the force rather than independent scientists examine the evidence - which is likely to continue if the FSS shuts. They say police increasingly favour DNA analysis to the exclusion of all other evidence, partly because it is cheaper and quicker than other techniques like fibre analysis, which private companies will lap up while axing less profitable areas of forensic science. This means police are more likely to use several companies to examine evidence from the same crime, leading to a piecemeal approach that jeopardises justice, warn scientists.

Dr Bono told the IoS: “Forensic science is the puzzle. It is a way to investigate the world around us to come up with the answers. This involves sitting down with colleagues and formulating answers to questions which relate to violations in the law and present that information reliably and accurately in court. If you split this process up then you won’t see the whole puzzle. If the FSS folds, you will lose the expertise from one place, and compromise justice for people in the UK.”

Professor Jim Fraser, director of the Centre for Forensic Science at Strathclyde University, believes the FSS was forced into an unstable and fragile market by the Government without any economic regulation or clear business plan which has resulted in its gradual downfall. “The role of the current forensic science regulator is confined to standards which is necessary for high quality provision but not sufficient safeguard against the vagaries of the private market. Furthermore, there is extensive evidence that those in the criminal justice system who use forensic science - police and lawyers - have very limited understanding of how to use it effectively…I can see no reason in principle why private sector forensic science cannot provide an adequate service. But I have grave concerns about the current situation in England and Wales where it appears that the combination of an unregulated market and poorly informed users will increase the likelihood of miscarriages of justice.”