by John Owen, ArroGen Forensics Ltd. The Forensic Marketplace, and the way that forensic science is commissioned and delivered, has changed significantly over recent years.
Most outsourced forensic work is now procured via a competitive tendering process, which until recently, has been managed under the National Forensic Framework. Tenders under the Framework have been product based, with police forces commissioning a series of defined tests at known cost from the Forensic Science Providers (FSP). This has been accompanied by a move away from a collaborative culture, where the police investigator and forensic scientist agree the strategy, to a culture where the police set the strategy and authorise the tests to be carried out.
With ever-increasing pressure on budgets, users of forensic science - typically the police, must be selective in their forensic submissions. For example, rather than submit a full set of clothing, targeted items may be selected, or clothing may be first screened in their own laboratory and samples recovered from them and submitted to the FSP for more detailed analysis. By geographically separating item examination from the context of others or when examining samples in isolation, this removes the opportunity to examine the distribution of material holistically and important information such as could be gleaned from analysis of the overall blood pattern, for example, is lost.
The majority of the outcomes of forensic testing are now reported in a staged way and at “source level”. Source level propositions address the question: “who might the DNA have come from?” which, in some cases, will be highly relevant. Source level reports however do not address “activity level” questions, such as “(given the match), how did the DNA get there?” The answers to activity level questions are usually of paramount importance to the court. So, in the absence of a full interpretation of the findings, activity level questions such as: how the DNA was transferred, when it might have been transferred and what body fluid it was associated with are often not addressed. By extension, the scientific findings have not been considered in the context of the case circumstances, that is, in light of the prosecution and the defence scenarios. When the scientific findings are evaluated in a limited framework, the significance of the results can be misconstrued and the findings overall could potentially mislead.
Forensic work is now routinely reported in the form of a Streamlined Forensic Report (SFR) rather than a Full Evidential Statement. SFRs are designed to make the evidence available at the earliest opportunity in order that the defendant can either accept or challenge the evidence, but they are not intended for use at trial. The SFR typically provides no detail of how the findings have been arrived at or the conditions under which the tests were commissioned. Individuals who are not scientific experts can also produce them; for example, a DNA match report could have been generated and reported automatically as part of an administration process. Furthermore, the test results may not have been generated using accredited procedures. In combination, this can mean that it may not be easy for the Defence to establish whether the evidence is robust or identify if they should challenge it. Our advice is that SFRs should be challenged in order to be able to fully understand the science behind them and robustly assess its significance in the context of your case.
The police are now carrying out much forensic work themselves and the recent Government Strategy1 on Forensic Science appears to re-enforce this position. The Forensic Science Regulator has set a timetable2 in which the work of all providers of forensic science should be accredited to ISO 17025 (or ISO 17020 for some types of work). However, not all work will be required to be accredited. For example, the Forensic Science Regulator has stipulated that “simple” classification of firearms, most of which is carried out by Force Armourers, does not need to be accredited and it is only if their SFR is challenged that the work will need to be repeated by an accredited organisation. The questions are whether systems sitting outside the accredited framework will operate at a quality that is expected under accreditation and how they know what is expected, and, if not, how will the work be regulated? Equally if good robust systems can operate outside of accreditation, will this undermine the use and value of it?
Given the current situation, understanding the value of an independent assessment of the evidence is paramount. A knowledgeable independent expert will look at the forensic strategy to ensure that all of the appropriate examinations have been carried out and, if relevant, can suggest additional examinations that have the potential to provide valuable informa-tion. They will evaluate the significance of the scientific findings in the context of the case, ensuring that the defendant’s account of events is fully considered. They will also have the necessary expertise to robustly challenge the findings. For example, in a body fluid case, they will be able to consider the evaluation of complex DNA mixtures, consider more specialist DNA tests and, if necessary, carry out a specialist statistical analysis of the results. They will also look at the chain of evidence to ensure that, for example, anti-contamination procedures have been robustly employed and that the conclusions reached are valid.
The way in which forensic science is delivered has changed dramatically and the changes will continue to impact significantly on all those involved in the criminal justice system (CJS). An understanding of the significance of this transformation may help users of the CJS, not least the Defence, in assessing the scientific evidence before them and perhaps knowing when they may need the help of an expert in evaluating its true meaning.
1.The Home Office. 2016. Forensic Science Strategy: A national approach to forensic science delivery in the criminal justice system. Available at: www.gov.uk/ government/publications
2.Forensic Science Regulator. 2016. Codes of Practice and Conduct for forensic science providers and practitioners in the Criminal Justice System. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/forensicscience-regulator