Forensic science and the criminal justice system: a blueprint for change Contents


In many criminal cases forensic science evidence is pivotal. The delivery of justice depends on the integrity and accuracy of that evidence, and the trust that society has in it. The quality and delivery of forensic science in England and Wales is inadequate. In her most recent annual report published on 15 March 2019, the Forensic Science Regulator issued a stark warning that “profound changes to funding and governance are required to ensure that forensic science survives and begins to flourish rather than lurching from crisis to crisis.” Tellingly, she emphasised that the focus of the Government should be on “the protection of justice rather than the protection of historic or current policies.”1

We have found that there has been a serious deficit of high-level leadership and oversight of forensic science from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. Following our evidence session with the Ministers, we were not persuaded that enough had been done to address the piecemeal oversight and accountability of forensic science. We recommend that a Forensic Science Board be created to deliver a new forensic science strategy and take responsibility for forensic science in England and Wales.

Simultaneous budget cuts and reorganisation, together with exponential growth in the need for new services such as digital evidence, have put forensic science providers under extreme pressure. The result is a forensic science market which is becoming dysfunctional and which, unless it is properly regulated, will soon suffer the shocks of major forensic science providers going out of business and putting justice in jeopardy. We recommend the role of the Forensic Science Regulator is reformed, expanded and resourced to provide this market regulation function.

This is not just a budget issue: structural and regulatory muddle exacerbates the malaise. There is no consistency in the way in which the 43 Police Authorities commission forensic services. Some Police Authorities have taken forensic investigation predominantly in-house whilst outsourcing some services to unregulated providers. These actions call into question equitable access for defendants and raise issues over the quality of the analysis undertaken and the evaluation of the evidence presented. We recommend that the Forensic Science Regulator should urgently be given a number of statutory powers to bolster trust in the quality of forensic science provision.

Fair access to justice for defendants is further hampered by cuts to legal aid. The defence must have the opportunity to commission their own forensic testing where evidence is disputed. We recommend that the Forensic Science Regulator should work with the Legal Aid Agency to set fair prices for forensic testing for which the Ministry of Justice must then commit to provide funding.

The rapid growth of digital forensic evidence presents challenges to the criminal justice system. We were not presented with evidence of any discernible strategy to deal with them. There is a need for legal practitioners to develop a better understanding of what can be achieved by digital forensic evidence and in what realistic timescales. The Government must prioritise investment in research on automation techniques for the retrieval and analysis of large volumes of digital evidence.

Research and development in forensic science is under-resourced and uncoordinated. This has resulted in serious concerns about the scientific validity of some forensic science fields and the capability to provide evaluative interpretation of forensic science evidence. We recommend creating a National Institute for Forensic Science to set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development, and to coordinate and direct research and funding.

During our inquiry, coverage in national newspapers included “Fund forensics or more crimes will go unsolved2 and “Most police forces fail to meet fingerprint evidence standards”,3 which highlight the urgency of addressing the issues in forensic science.

Unless these failings are recognised and changes made, public trust in forensic science evidence will continue to be lost and confidence in the justice system will be threatened. Crimes may go unsolved and the number of miscarriages of justice may increase. Furthermore, world-leading specialist expertise will be under-used, and England and Wales may never regain its reputation as holding the international benchmark for forensic science. This report follows others that have raised similar concerns, yet the changes that are necessary have not been made, despite acknowledgements that they would be. Forensic science in England and Wales is in trouble. To ensure the delivery of justice, the time for action is now.

1 Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2017–November 2018, (15 March 2019): [accessed 22 March 2019]

2 ‘Fund forensics or more crimes will go unsolved’, The Times (7 February 2019): [accessed 25 March 2019]

3 ‘Most police forces fail to meet fingerprint evidence standards’, The Guardian (7 January 2019): [accessed 25 March 2019]

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