Research funding cuts, new reporting regulations and differences in each police force's approach are all worrying experts—and raising doubts about the future of justice in Britainby Jason Murugesu / August 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
Most people going through the criminal justice system expect forensics science to just work, says Emily Bolton. The director of Appeal, a law charity which specialises in miscarriages of justice, calls it “the CSI effect.”
Forensics catch the bad guys on TV and science only gets better year on year, so science must be improving our quality of justice. “They think it’s a phone call to God—a way to find out what really happened,” Bolton says.
Yet our faith in the justice system works much like many organised religions: the more you read, the more you question. While we may possess the technological capabilities to conduct high-quality forensics, austerity measures and budgetary cuts mean that fewer forensics are conducted. Bolton says that time and again, her charity finds that the biggest problem with criminal cases is the “absence of forensics science—what should have been done and what wasn’t done.”
A report on forensic science published by the Science and Technology Committee earlier this year said that the whole field was at a crisis point. One professor I talked to called the 66-page report “a brief summary” of the true scale of the problem.
Until 2010, forensics were conducted by a public central body called the Forensics Science Service (FSS). It was dissolved because it was too expensive, and forensics ended up being divvied up between private providers and police forces who took forensics in-house. 80 per cent of forensics are now done by the police themselves. Bolton suggests, however, that this can lead to a confirmation bias when analysing materials.
She provides an example of a jacket with thirty stains. The police may only have the budget to test three of those stains. If just one of the results comes back with a positive match for their suspect, they will stop testing. What might those other 27 stains have showed?
In our legal system, the forensics conducted by the police are used by both the defence and prosecution. If the defence want to conduct their own forensics, they will have to pay for it out of their own pockets.
If the defence is being funded by Legal Aid, you have to make a strong justification for it. Bolton says that there’s a culture of “not asking”—because “you have to explain why you don’t believe the police and it can make you sound like a conspiracy nut.”
Dr Carole McCartney, a professor of Law at the University of Northumbria, tells me that we don’t know the true scale of flawed forensics, both because each of the country’s 43 police forces have their own system, and because of a controversial new efficiency measure called “Streamlined Forensic Reporting.”
“Streamlined Forensic Reporting” often involves an A4 piece of paper which a defendant ticks off to say they won’t challenge certain forensics that the police may have on them. In other words, the form will say: we have your DNA at the scene of the crime, do you agree? If the defendant agrees, they will tick “yes,” and the DNA won’t be used against them at trial.
The issue with this system is that it pretends that the science is black and white. It doesn’t say where the DNA was found, or what the likelihood of a false positive is. Ultimately, it prevents further detailed analysis being conducted and it means fewer forensics are being used as evidence in a court environment where they could be challenged.
McCartney also echoes Bolton’s concern that budgetary concerns are affecting which forensics are being done, even for the most serious of crimes. She recalls talking to a police-detective recently about a murder case.
Ten years ago, forensics at the crime scene would have taken just one day with six scientists. In this case however, four days of forensics were required as he only had two scientists at his disposal.
It is impossible to say with any certainty how all of this might affect the potential for the miscarriage of justice in Britain. But it cannot be under any doubt that cuts to forensic budgets make it harder to prosecute criminals, and potentially the potential for innocent people to be put away.
Infrastructural issues with forensic funding extend to research, too. While one would think technological advancements in the field are advancing at a pace, the dissolution of the FFS had a knock-on effect on the money spent on research.
Professor Ruth Morgan, a researcher in forensic science at UCL, says that the FFS used to fund most research in forensics, now there is the belief that if you fund biological or chemical research—on DNA for example—this will naturally translate into applications for forensic science. Forensics science gets very little funding in its own right, she says, often because it’s harder to explain the economic benefits of its findings.
Morgan says there’s also the “chicken and the egg” problem of funding as research councils will say that forensics service providers should pay for research which may benefit them, and these providers, alongside the police, will in turn say that they have no money.
Then we come to the looming crisis that precipitated the Science and Technology committee in the first place: the financial viability of the private services who provide 20 percent of the police’s forensics. Of the three major providers, in the last year, one had to pay off a ransomware hacker and another was saved from collapse by the government. If one were to collapse, the forensic backlogs caused would be unmanageable.
In essence, private forensics is currently an unsustainable business, and the police (who provide nearly all of their income) are conducting fewer and fewer forensics. When the three CEOs of these providers were asked by the Committee whether a better business model was required, they all responded with an unequivocal “yes.”
A whole host of issues raised in the report also included the use of unaccredited laboratories by police to deal with forensic backlogs and the use of intrusive digital forensics in sexual assault cases. Morgan, who consulted on the Committee’s report, says all 150 witnesses were in effect saying the same thing, “we are in real trouble and we need to sort this out, and we need infrastructural change to enable reform.”
Though the Committee set out a list of thorough recommendations, it will require decades of strong leadership and the painstaking governance to enact. Boris Johnson’s tough on crime stance and 20,000 extra police-officers do not fill any of my interviewees with confidence. The road ahead is long.