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…