Forensic science oversight and accountability – the missing link?
The distinctive (dare I say it, unique) attribute of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Forensic Science is its breadth of scope, seeking to address the whole process of forensic science from crime scene to court, and its incorporation of all the intersecting domains of policy, policing, law, science and government, to address the core challenges. One of the attributes of forensic science that the inquiry identified as a recurring issue was the piecemeal governance and oversight of forensic science that is outlined in the report in chapter 2.
Fragmentation in forensic science has been recognised in the past as a cause of many of the challenges faced. For example, with the so called ‘atomisation’ of the forensic reconstruction process itself, where different institutions now deal with different parts of the process (such as the crime scene and recovery of exhibits, and then the analysis of the samples recovered) rather than having one institution or manager with oversight across the whole process which was often the case in previous eras. Another example would be the challenge encountered in trying to demonstrate the value of forensic science across the whole Criminal Justice System (as outlined in the recent Home Office report). It isn’t (yet) possible to articulate the value of detecting the source of a material that leads to a confession of guilt which may then save advocate and court time down the line, due to the lack of connections between investigation and prosecution phases of the forensic science process as well as a lack of data. So, in these and many other ways fragmentation can lead to a lack of transparency about who is ultimately responsible and accountable for ensuring that forensic science equips the justice system as it needs to now and in the future.
The Science and Technology Committee’s report advocates the establishment of a Forensic Science Board chaired by a senior judge with broad representation from senior forensic scientists, academics and police officers. There appears to be great potential for such a board in Forensic Science to provide leadership that is informed by all the constituent voices that are critical to the broadest understanding of forensic science. Such a board offers a means to ultimately advocate for forensic science and take responsibility for ensuring its sustainability, development, and cultivating world class forensic science.
Forensic science needs to be considered in its entirety. There needs to be an environment where forensic service provision is supported and enabled, which will require a sustainable market that values quality and efficiency. In this type of environment, it is possible to see a time where forensic science methods are coherently and consistently underpinned by robust science at every stage of the process (crime scene to court). In this type of environment, the groundwork can be laid to ensure that the communication of science evidence and what it means in case contexts is transparent and appropriate for all the key consumers of forensic science evidence. In this type of environment, research can be enabled that addresses both short term needs in the detection of materials, but also middle and longer term innovations to underpin robust evaluative interpretation as well as harnessing the power of emerging technologies to equip forensic science for detecting crime in the future.
We will have to wait and see whether there is an appetite for establishing the Board and the will to enable it. But, the urgent need for action is clearly stated and strongly worded in the report, and what is at stake without action is untenable. Given the breadth of the inquiry and range of evidence from every sector within forensic science, the report makes a compelling case not only for the value of establishing the Board, but also for its necessity for forensic science in England and Wales going forward.