The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry into Forensic Science: a brave new world
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into forensic science is unique in taking a holistic view of forensic science across the whole system. The Committee have identified there is an urgent need to address the complex challenges we face in forensic science to stop forensic science lurching from crisis to crisis and ensure trust in the justice system. As a member of the forensic science community and the Specialist Adviser for the inquiry, I am encouraged by the hope that the recommendations from the inquiry offer for the changes that forensic science needs.
Forensic science has been the focus of a lot of attention over the last 10 years, and the subject of significant critique and concern. The NAS report in 2009 identified the serious challenges facing forensic science in terms of establishing its validity and its scientific basis. This arguably led to calls to establish a research culture in forensic science, and many activities designed to contribute to the development of the quality of forensic science. The UK established a Forensic Science Regulator post to oversee quality of forensic service provision, and the US established the National Commission on Forensic Science (now disbanded).
In the last 10 years, research has begun to identify the gaps that exist in the evidence base (such as the data necessary to understand transfer and persistence of traces) as well as developing new approaches to harness the power of emerging technologies to assist in the detection of evidence (AI, machine learning, increased sensitivity of analytical techniques). At the same time in the UK there have been inquiries and reports from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee addressing (amongst other things) the forensic science market (2011), the loss of the Forensic Science Service (2013), the biometric strategy and forensic services (2018) and the roles of Forensic Science Regulator and the Biometrics Commissioner (2019). There has also been a report from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (2015) alongside annual reports from the Forensic Science Regulator. In this same period forensic science has been taken out of the remit of the UK research councils, and there have been wholesale cuts across the police, the justice system and universities. Alongside all this there have been high profile setbacks including the discoveries of miscarriages of justice, evidence of malpractice in accredited labs, and providers of forensic services withdrawing from the market or going into administration.
Forensic science has therefore had its fair share of inquiries and scrutiny, with the majority agreeing that forensic science faces significant challenges locally and globally. However one common attribute across all these inquiries has been that each one has considered one specific aspect of forensic science (for example procurement, laboratory analysis, science in court, or the factors involved in scene investigations) rather than having the resources and capacity to address the whole ecosystem of forensic science (from crime scene, investigation, lab analysis, to the presentation of evidence in court), in a way that also brings together the voices from all the relevant domains (the police, advocates, judiciary, scientists, researchers, and policymakers).
This is why when the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee announced their inquiry in July 2018, and the scope of the inquiry was published, there was great interest from our community. This inquiry uniquely asked probing questions across the whole remit of forensic science, and in so doing attracted a broad range of written evidence from the full spectrum of the forensic science community. This is the only way a full picture of all the key areas of forensic science and their interconnections can be taken into consideration and the root causes of the challenges we face be brought to the light. Complex challenges rarely have simple solutions, so identifying those root causes is critical to developing recommendations that have the potential to change the status quo for the better. What has unfolded over the last year as the weekly oral evidence sessions have been heard, has been an extraordinary journey.
The key areas of forensic science considered by the inquiry are:
The oversight, leadership and responsibility for forensic science: the inquiry identified ‘a serious deficit of high-level leadership’ and ‘piecemeal oversight and accountability’ that has led to a lack of joined up approaches and the serious lack of coordinated strategy. The Committee made a strong case for the importance of creating a Forensic Science Board as an ‘arms-length body to be responsible for the coordination, strategy and direction of forensic science in England and Wales’ to deliver strategic and accountable leadership that represents all the main stakeholders.
The forensic science market: the inquiry considered the current situation, the challenges of procurement and creating a regulatory body to oversee the market and ensure continuity of service provision, as well as to develop a procurement model that 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.’
Ensuring trust in forensic science: the inquiry addressed accreditation and statutory powers for the Forensic Science Regulator, the need for finding a pathway to reduce the costs of accreditation for niche and smaller providers, the need to establish an independent tribunal mechanism for experts, and to develop a strategy for the ongoing training of forensic science practitioners.
The use of forensic science in the criminal justice system: the inquiry addressed the importance of properly funding legal aid, ensuring the provision of ongoing, responsive, salient guidance on science for the judiciary, and the need for the government to invest in building the capacity of automated techniques and the detection and interpretation of digital forensic science evidence.
Research and development: the inquiry also scrutinised the research environment, the lack of resourcing for research and the urgency of increasing the amount of dedicated funding for both technological advances and foundational research, and the recommendation of creating a National Institute for Forensic Science to achieve this.
Working with the Committee as their Specialist Adviser has been without doubt one of the most interesting, stimulating, thought provoking and mind broadening roles I’ve ever had the privilege to hold. I hope that in this series of blog pieces I can share the key findings of the inquiry and its blueprint for change, and offer a personal insight into their importance and significance for forensic science as we look forward.
You can see the full report here