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Quality Matters in Forensic Science

Written by: Alan Baker 25th January, 2017

There have been many attempts over the years to impose some sort of quality control over the provision of forensic science services to criminal defence solicitors. The advent of the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) in 2000 was the last real attempt to create a system which gave confidence in the expert scientific work presented to Courts. The CRFP accreditation process was halted by The Forensic Regulator in 2009 on the basis that he wanted corporate and not personal accreditation. In the interim period there has been a mish-mash of ideas which have not been helped by a rapidly changing marketplace and crucially the advent of in-house police laboratories in an attempt to curtail public spending.

It seems likely that the Regulator will get statutory powers in 2017 and some time after that will see the implementation of new quality controls for those involved in casework review. A pilot group of scientists has been working with UKAS and the Chartered Society to attempt to formulate modifications to an existing ISO standard, namely ISO17020, with the first area of scrutiny being services related to DNA and blood pattern analysis.

The defence marketplace is propagated by the larger privatised labs who primarily work for the police, by smaller organisations who have little or no laboratory facilities and many of which, like Bericon, have been around since the 1980’s and by sole traders who deliver specialised services, often working from home.

It is a disparate and unusual combination of providers and therein, in my view, lies the problem when attempting to create a one size fits all quality system. The larger providers have the resource, experience and capacity to create and manage what will be an extensive and demanding quality programme and will probably be just an adjunct to their existing ISO9001 and 17025 accreditations.

Meanwhile many of the smaller providers may not have an existing formal quality scheme and will be facing some of the issues for the first time. Whilst it is extremely fortunate that the Society is offering priceless assistance in the formulation of the new Standard, the ultimate day-to-day implementation and management of any programme will be the responsibility of the accredited organisation or individual.

In 25 years of forensic work, I have visited numerous forensic labs, reviewed thousands of cases and spoken to hundreds of scientists about their jobs, thoughts and concerns. I cannot recall coming across an individual who I felt was inherently unprofessional or had either done or said something which was without some sort of foundation. That’s not to say that there isn’t a need for quality control but the role of a defence expert can often highlight matters that may not have been previously considered or arrange for the examination and testing of items not examined by the Crown. I see it as a different role to that of the prosecution expert and one that often focusses on procedure and protocol. Therein lies the problem when considering a system to monitor defence experts and giving the public total faith in the scientific evidence in a criminal trial.

Some lawyers take the simple view that the natural quality system is the expert’s conduct pre-Trial and when preparing written evidence or presenting it in person and that if the provider was poor (albeit in their eyes) they would simply cease to trade.

However, whilst suggesting that the market providers are varied, I think that it’s only reasonable to expect that there is some form of control over those providing the services. On that basis I would certainly endorse the introduction of a quality programme but I have reservations about the cost to the organisations and individuals concerned and that the implementation is at a time when the whole criminal justice system is working on a shoestring.

The need is there for it to happen but the immediate and ongoing costs are likely to preclude some from seeking accreditation. I certainly know of some individuals with many years of experience will take the view that its simply “not worth the hassle” and will cease working in their expert roles. Another consequence may be that it is only the larger better-resourced organisations that will seek and obtain accreditation thereby reducing the marketplace even further. Who knows, that may even be the objective in all of this.

The simple reality could be that you can’t afford to do it and you can’t afford not to do it. The hope being that those who gain accreditation in the short-term have some sort of commercial advantage over those that don’t have it.

It looks like that 2017 will be the year of the Forensic Regulator and, as small providers, we can only hope that its doesn’t turn out to be our collective Annus Horribilis.