Regulator says UK forces failing to meet standards, with routine outsourcing of great concern
Police forces are failing to meet the official standards for forensic science, making miscarriages of justice inevitable, the government’s forensic regulator has said.
In her annual report, Gillian Tully highlighted her growing concerns about the failure of some forensic firms used by the police to meet basic quality standards. It means innocent people could be wrongly convicted and offenders escaping justice.
The routine outsourcing of criminal forensic work to unaccredited laboratories worries Tully, with some not subject to independent oversight.
She told the Guardian that without urgent action there would inevitably be miscarriages of justice, including in cases involving murder, rape and child abuse.
“If you’re not finding indecent images of children on someone’s phone when you should be, that’s a miscarriage of justice as much as if someone was wrongly convicted of a crime,” Tully said.
The government abolished the Forensic Science Service in 2012, which was the primary provider to the police and courts, resulting in forensic work being transferred to in-house police laboratories and private providers. Conservative ministers wanted to create a market in which independent companies competed for business
But most forces appear to be behind schedule in bringing their own laboratories into line with official standards, the regulator’s latest report shows. Just a few met the October deadline to gain formal accreditation to carry out digital forensic science work.
Police are also outsourcing large volumes of digital forensic science casework – the analysis of phones, computers and CCTV – to low-cost private forensic labs without any accreditation or oversight, the report said, describing this as “unacceptable”.
“Quality standards are not a nice-to-have extra that, if we have any money left, we’ll do some quality,” said Tully. “Doing something that you can’t necessarily stand behind in court is just inappropriate at every level.”
The regulator said she would be examining whether failures to follow correct procedures in digital forensic science could have played a role in a number of high-profile rape cases that collapsed before going to trial. “I have formally requested more information on those recent cases,” she said.
She added that formal complaints had been made about the quality of digital forensic science work by some private providers, which she was also investigating.
Tully urged the government to give her office statutory powers so that she could ban substandard providers, adding that some police forces did not appear to be committed to complying with official guidelines.
“One or two police forces are dragging their heels and certainly not moving on at the rate I would expect,” she said. “I would question whether they are completely committed to gaining the necessary standards.”
Tully added: “The more pressure you put on people, the less time they have to spend on their actual work, the more you raise the risk of errors.”
In her report Tully said: “Without statutory backing for my role, a number of small and micro-businesses have chosen, for financial reasons, not to move towards gaining accreditation and those that have met the quality standards have not yet been fully rewarded through the contracting process.
“Those not moving towards compliance should be in no doubt that their services will gradually receive fewer commissions and their practitioners will face more challenges in court.”
There is a criminal investigation into claims that data at the Randox laboratory in Manchester may have been manipulated, causing the biggest recall of samples in British criminal justice history.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for forensic science, Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, said: “Chief constables are being forced to make difficult decisions about how they utilise their limited resources, but we remain completely committed to meeting the requirements of accreditation and further improving confidence in the criminal justice system.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is for chief constables and police and crime commissioners to decide how best to deploy resources to effectively manage crime and local priorities, including forensic services. However, we are clear that cost savings must not come at the expense of a reduction in quality standards.
“We are committed to putting the Forensic Science Regulator on a statutory footing with robust enforcement powers at the earliest opportunity. We are clear that organisations providing forensic services to the criminal justice system need to abide by the regulator’s code of practice.”