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

Summary of conclusions and recommendations


1.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. (Paragraph 5)

Oversight, leadership and resposibility

2.It is clear that there is a need to deliver strategic and accountable leadership that reflects all the main stakeholders to set the vision, strategy, and agenda for forensic science. (Paragraph 36)

3.The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are not working closely enough to address the absence of high-level leadership in forensic science. Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that the operational independence of the police and the independence of the courts and of forensic scientific evidence are safeguarded. Therefore we recommend the creation of a Forensic Science Board as an arm’s-length body to be responsible for the coordination, strategy and direction of forensic science in England and Wales. (Paragraph 37)

4.The Forensic Science Board should work with the newly expanded role of the Forensic Science Regulator (see recommendation in Chapter 3), the National Institute for Forensic Science proposed by this report (see recommendation in Chapter 6), and wider stakeholders to create and deliver a new forensic science strategy which focuses on greater coordination and collaboration. The strategy should aim to promote proper understanding of forensic science in the criminal justice system. The Board should also consider levels of funding and the value for money in the forensic science market. The Forensic Science Board should set England and Wales on track to regaining its world-class status in forensic science. (Paragraph 38)

5.The Board should be chaired by a retired senior judge with experience of criminal casework. Membership should include the Director of the new National Institute for Forensic Science proposed by this report, a senior academic, and a senior police officer. The Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice should be jointly accountable to Parliament for the Board. (Paragraph 39)

The forensic science market

6.The instability of the forensic science market is a serious risk to the criminal justice system. We recommend that the Forensic Science Regulator’s remit and resources be reformed and expanded to include responsibility for regulating the market. (Paragraph 72)

7.The expanded role of the Forensic Science Regulator should review the structure of the market for forensic science in England and Wales and, in particular, the procurement process for commissioning private sector providers alongside provision by police forces. The objective should be to determine a procurement model which balances price, quality and market sustainability; ensures a level playing field between private and public sector providers; avoids undue shocks to the market, such as the clustering of contracts in any one year; and which maintains the capabilities of small providers in niche disciplines. (Paragraph 73)

Ensuring trust in forensic science

8.The Forensic Science Regulator should work with UKAS to find a proportionate way to reduce costs of accreditation for niche and smaller private providers. Exemptions from accreditation should exist for providers using new or non-standard techniques which could not yet be accredited, but the court should be made aware of this. (Paragraph 90)

9.We see a clear benefit in ensuring that most forensic science providers are accredited to the appropriate ISO standards. The Forensic Science Regulator should review the current regulation framework and make any necessary changes to ensure that it promotes good practice. (Paragraph 91)

10.While we are not recommending an accreditation process for individual practitioners of forensic science, an independent tribunal mechanism should be established within the Forensic Science Regulator with the power to prevent individuals from providing expert testimony in court where the individual has been found to have presented misleading or insufficiently evidenced opinion. This debarment should apply until the tribunal is satisfied that the individual has demonstrated their competence to resume giving expert testimony. The Regulator should also have powers to issue fines and improvement notices to individuals who do not deserve debarment and those individuals should have the right to appeal to the tribunal. (Paragraph 98)

11.The Forensic Science Regulator should also maintain a register of forensic science practitioners who have been debarred from giving evidence in court. (Paragraph 99)

12.Since 2012, the Government has given assurances that statutory powers needed by the regulator would be forthcoming but has taken no action. We consider that seven years is an embarrassing time to delay legislation, particularly as time has been found for several other Home Office Bills. The Forensic Science industry is in trouble; such action is now urgent. The Government should introduce statutory powers for the Forensic Science Regulator. Private members’ bills cannot be relied on to do this. The Government should demonstrate its commitment to this issue by introducing a Government bill giving the Forensic Science Regulator the following properly funded statutory powers:

13.The Forensic Science Board, with input from the College of Policing and the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences, should develop a strategy for the ongoing training of all forensic science practitioners, with a particular focus on maintaining competence in niche disciplines and providing expert evidence in a legal setting. (Paragraph 116)

The use of forensic science in the criminal justice system

14.Cuts to legal aid have affected the ability of defendants to access forensic expertise. We recommend that the Legal Aid Agency liaise with the market-regulation arm within the expanded role of the Forensic Science Regulator to set new pricing schemes, properly funded by the Ministry of Justice, for forensic testing and expert advice for defendants. (Paragraph 123)

15.The new Forensic Science Board should have ultimate responsibility for ensuring ongoing guidance to the judiciary and the legal professional about the accurate scientific position on the main types of forensic science. Although this must be a matter for the Board, there is clear benefit in continuing the work that has produced primers on key topics, albeit at an increased pace and with a broader scope. They should be responsible for enabling dialogue and sharing of best practice, and responding to new developments as they arise. (Paragraph 135)

16.We recommend that all advocates practising in the criminal courts should, as part of their continuing professional development, be required to undertake training in the use of scientific evidence in court and basic scientific principles such as probability, scientific inference and research methods. (Paragraph 136)

17.Digital evidence will become even more prevalent in trials in the coming years. There needs to be a better understanding among legal practitioners of the timescales involved in interrogating and analysing digital evidence where modern technology is not used; this must be built into the pre-trial process. (Paragraph 149)

18.The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office should invest in research of automation techniques for data retrieval and analysis to reduce the resources and time taken to process and analyse digital evidence and thus reduce delays in the criminal justice system. In doing so, they should assess the use of these techniques in the civil court system and consider what other examples of best practice could be replicated. (Paragraph 150)

19.We recommend that the Government works urgently to build capacity and resilience in digital forensics. The new role of the Forensic Science Regulator should take into account the need for digital forensic capacity in the course of regulating the market. (Paragraph 151)

Research and development

20.Current levels of investment in forensic science research are inadequate and do not appear to reflect value to the criminal justice system. We believe that the Home Office has abdicated its responsibility for research in forensic science. We recommend that UK Research and Innovation urgently and substantially increase the amount of dedicated funding allocated to forensic science for both technological advances and foundational research, with a particular focus on digital forensic science evidence and the opportunities to develop further capabilities in artificial intelligence and machine learning. (Paragraph 187)

21.We recommend the creation of a National Institute for Forensic Science within the UK Research and Innovation family, to set strategic priorities for forensic science research and development, and to coordinate and direct research and funding. This body should work closely with the police, the judiciary, universities, private forensic science providers and the Forensic Science Regulator to fulfil these duties. It should be accountable to UK Research and Innovation who should submit an annual report on the activities of the National Institute for Forensic Science to the Forensic Science Board. (Paragraph 188)

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