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

Chapter 1: Introduction


1.Forensic science has been under sustained scrutiny over the last 10 years. It is a complex discipline that interacts with a range of fields, including science, policing, government and law. There are clear, deep-rooted challenges that have been identified but not addressed. In this inquiry the fundamental importance of effective, robust and high-quality forensic science and its contribution to the justice system have been apparent, as have the dangers of not supporting and enabling world-class forensic science.

2.Forensic science applies scientific methods to the recovery, analysis and interpretation of relevant materials and data in criminal investigations and court proceedings. It is both an intelligence and evidential tool to assist in the delivery of justice.

3.Forensic science is traditionally viewed as a collection of different sub-domains with shared overarching principles, processes, and activities. Within the different sub-domains there is a range of different primary aims, and variability in terms of the scientific underpinning and robustness of the methods employed. Professor Peter Sommer, Professor of Digital Forensics at Birmingham City University, summarised the different categories of forensic science activity:

4.Forensic science sits at the nexus of science, law, policy and investigation. It should be viewed as a process that encompasses the crime scene through to court. The following figure shows the different stages of the process and how forensic evidence and human decision-making are integral at each stage:

Figure 1: Forensic science from crime scene to court

Figure 1: Forensic science from crime scene to court

Source: Morgan, R. M., Nakhaeizadeh, S., Earwaker, H., Rando, C., Harris, A. J. L. Dror, I. E., (2018) Interpretation of evidence: Cognitive decision making under uncertainty (at every step of the forensic science process). In R. Wortley, A. Sidebottom, G. Laycock, & N. Tilley (Eds.), Handbook of Crime Science (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), pp 408–420

The state of forensic science

5.A free society is dependent on the rule of law which in turn relies on equality of access to justice. The evidence we received points to failings in the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system and these can be attributed to an absence of high-level leadership, a lack of funding and an insufficient level of research and development. Throughout this inquiry we heard about the decline in forensic science in England and Wales, especially since the abolition of the Forensic Science Service. Professor Claude Roux, Director of Centre for Forensic Science, University of Technology, Sydney, and President of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, told us:

“When I was a student, England and Wales held, essentially, the international benchmark. It was the “Mecca” for forensic science. Some 30 years later, my observation from the outside … is that it has been an ongoing national crisis and, at this stage, is more of an example not to follow.”5

6.In the last 10 years there have been nine reports, each with numerous assessments of the state of forensic science in England and Wales and recommendations to address the challenges.6 Additionally, there have been two influential reports from the United States addressing similar issues.7

7.Some of the concerns raised in these reports were:

8.Despite these reports raising concerns about a range of issues affecting the administration of justice, it appears that little has changed as a result.

Our inquiry

9.In this inquiry we considered the contribution of forensic science to the delivery of justice and the understanding of forensic science evidence in the criminal justice system. We examined the scientific evidence base for different techniques and the regulatory framework which underpins standards in the sector. We also considered the instability of the forensic science market and research.

10.We held 21 oral evidence sessions with over 50 witnesses and received 103 written submissions. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence.12

11.The committee visited the Metropolitan Police Service’s Directorate of Forensic Services on 16 October 2018. We observed forensic analyses including fingerprint analysis, ballistics comparison and digital forensic analysis. We are grateful to the Metropolitan Police Service for facilitating our visit. Further details of the visit are in appendix 4.

12.We thank our specialist adviser, Professor Ruth Morgan,13 chair of Crime and Forensic Science at University College London, for her knowledge and enthusiasm. We are also grateful to the Committee staff who worked on the inquiry: Donna Davidson (Clerk), Michael Berry (Graduate Clerk), Cerise Burnett-Stuart (Committee Assistant), and Dr Daniel Rathbone (former Policy Analyst).

Structure of this report

13.Chapter 2 explores the current environment and identifies the gaps in oversight and responsibility and considers what body should provide leadership and accountability to the sector. Chapter 3 examines the fragility of the forensic science market and how it could be better regulated. Chapter 4 considers ways in which accreditation and regulation could be improved to ensure the quality of forensic science. Chapter 5 looks at the use of forensic science evidence in the criminal justice system and the levels of scientific understanding among legal professionals. Finally, Chapter 6 examines research and development and makes recommendations to address current gaps and achieve a more strategic approach.

4 Written evidence from Professor Peter Sommer (FRS0009)

5 Q 215 (Professor Claude Roux)

6 Science and Technology Committee, Biometrics strategy and forensic services (Fifth Report, Session 2017–19, HC 800); Science and Technology Committee, The Forensic Science Service (Seventh Report, Session 2010–12, HC 855); The Law Commission Consultation Paper No 190, The Admissibility of Expert Evidence in Criminal Proceedings in England and Wales (2011):; Science and Technology Committee, Forensic Science (Second Report, Session 2013–14, HC 610); Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2014–November 2015 (4 December 2015):; Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2015–November 2016 (6 January 2017):; Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2016–November 2017 (19 January 2018):; Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2017–November 2018 (15 March 2019): and Government Office for Science, Forensic Science and Beyond: Authenticity, Provenance and Assurance, Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2015 (2015): [accessed 15 February 2019]

7 Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community, National Research Council of the National Academies, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (September 2016): and Executive Office of the President, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods (September 2016): [accessed 15 February 2019]

8 Science and Technology Committee, Forensic Science (Second Report, Session 2013–14, HC 610)

9 Briefing for the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, The Home Office’s oversight of forensic services (December 2014): [accessed 25 March 2019]

10 Forensic Science Regulator, Annual Report November 2016–November 2017 (19 January 2018): [accessed 15 February 2019]

11 Ibid.

12 All written and oral evidence is online, see House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, ‘Forensic science inquiry’:

13 Professor Ruth Morgan’s registered interests are included in Appendix 1.

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