The forensic science regulator is reviewing a series of sexual assault cases to examine whether poor evidence gathering at crime scenes may be compromising criminal justice in the UK, she has told the Guardian.
Dr Gill Tully, whose remit is to establish quality standards in forensic science and ensure compliance with them, said her review was prompted by a number of cases where “the scientific opportunities don’t appear to have been maximised”. These included examples where scientific analysis was not carried out at all.
The forensic review will look at decision-making at every stage of the investigation in a number of cases, from the crime scene through to any subsequent
prosecution. The review will focus on sexual assault cases because they are complex and often not well resourced. The review is expected to take nine months.
The review comes as forensic scientists warn that Britain’s over-reliance on cheap DNA techniques and the country’s loss of expertise following privatisation of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in 2012 may have already led to miscarriages of justice.
Spending on forensic examinations has shrunk by £20m over the past two years, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) study. In January, the NAO expressed concern that criminal trials could collapse because of skill and availability problems in the forensic market.
Asked about concerns that spending cuts imposed on police evidence gathering in the wake of the closure of FSS was compromising investigation, she said her
analysis would include looking at whether “any fragmentation of decision making and analysis is affecting the overall quality and effectiveness of forensic science in the end to end [crime scene to court] process”.
One forensic fibre expert told the Guardian that the killers of Stephen Lawrence, Sarah Payne and victims of the Suffolk strangler Steve Wright, all cases where
fibre evidence helped secure conviction, might have escaped justice today because of pressure on forensic science providers to get quick results using cheaper
DNA profiling. There are currently less than six full-time fibre experts in the UK, compared with 44 in 2008, according to Tiernan Coyle, chief scientist at Contact Traces. “During the Wright case, the Forensic Science Service had five experts working full-time for 18 months in order to secure the fibre evidence,” said Coyle. “Even if you were to pool all the fibres expertise in England and Wales, you wouldn’t have enough skilled people to work on that case now.
The serial killer, convicted of killing five victims, was linked by DNA to only three, Paula Clennell, 24, Annette Nicholls, 29, and Anneli Alderton, 24. But fibre evidence linked Wright to Tania Nicol, 19, and Gemma Adams, 25 and he was convicted of killing all five.
Prof Peter Gill, an award-winning forensic expert and one of the pioneers of DNA analysis, echoed Coyle’s concerns about miscarriages of justice in Britain.
“With the Birmingham Six and Judith Ward [the M62 bomber whose conviction was quashed], there was very poor reporting by forensic science,” Gill also said that the “purely market-driven” UK model was not used anywhere else in the world. “Most other jurisdictions fund forensic science services to allow tests that aren’t used very often to keep them up and running”.