The UK’s forensic science regulator has urged the Home Office to deliver on its 2016 pledge to give the office statutory powers to enforce standards, as she warned of financial threats to quality in criminal investigations.
Gillian Tully used her annual report, which also called for an overhaul of the funding forensic science used in the criminal justice system, to urge the Home Office to put forward legislation that would enable her to enforce quality standards for forensic science providers and police forces in England and Wales.
Tully, who has been the UK’s forensics regulator since 2017, is responsible for setting these standards but has no powers to enforce them.
“It is abundantly clear that without statutory powers, the regulator will be unable to achieve her aim of ensuring that all forensic science used in the [criminal justice system] is of the requisite quality,” she said.
The Home Office committed to giving the regulator statutory powers in 2016, as recommended by both the Science and Technology Select Committee of MPs and Sir Brian Leveson, who led the Review of Efficiency in Criminal Procedures on behalf of the Judiciary in England and Wales in 2015.
However, little progress has been made on implementing those powers due to pressures on government’s legislative programme and parliamentary time.
Tully said in her report, published at the end of last week, that she had discussed the issue with “representatives of the government [who] have assured her that the government is still committed to providing powers and is looking for a suitable vehicle to introduce the matter into parliament”.
In a statement accompanying the report, Tully said that although police forces in England and Wales had made some progeress, there was "more work to be done to ensure all are adhering to internationally-recognised standards".
"It is clear that the government must give this office the legal authority to enforce these standards and ensure the quality of forensic science continues to improve."
Funding 'too low'
Tully’s report also called for “profound changes” to the funding and governance of forensic science in the UK. “The strains from many years of funding restrictions continue to impact severely on forensic scientists in policing and the commercial sector,” she said.
“Public sector finances are limited everywhere, but the risks to forensic science provision are close to existential," she added later in the report.
“A complete rethink of the structure, funding and oversight of forensic science is urgently required; minor alterations will not suffice."
Funding for forensic casework is too low and companies compete for work “largely on the basis of price, with no consideration of quality standards”, she said. This is partly because the current legal aid funding system “does not support adoption of standards”, she said.
Tully said she would continue to work with the Legal Aid Agency to determine if the funding system could be altered to accommodate quality standards.
The significant financial strain on companies that carry out forensic science that supports criminal investigations “represents a serious risk to quality”, particularly when it comes to skills, Tully warned. With skilled scientists facing the threat of redundancy, “the most complex cases can only be effectively dealt with by those with a broad and deep level of knowledge and experience”, she said.
In-house provision of forensic science in police forces is also under strain, according to Tully. “There is insufficient resource allocated to forensic units in policing for them to both deliver operationally and achieve the requisite quality standards.”
The situation is so severe when it comes to digital forensics that there are reports of cases having been discontinued because digital evidence is not available, she said,
“I hope that those with a mandate for funding and governance will tackle the problems once and for all, for the protection of justice rather than the protection of historic or current policies,” she urged.