Forensic science cost-cutting could cause errors, say experts

This is an article from the Guardian, 13 September 2009.  It basically outlines what has happened in England & Wales and what we, here in New Zealand, should be glad has not happened – yet.  Although I am sure some would argue that there is a need for the stranglehold of ESR (the main provider to the NZPolice) to be broken, there’s no point if there is no viable, economic, sensible alternative.

“Police contracts that put pressure on forensic scientists to deliver low-cost investigations within tight timescales risk jeopardising quality and could lead to a miscarriage of justice, experts have warned.

Police forces have changed the way they obtain forensic science services for criminal investigations and now pick laboratories through competitive tendering.

That has led to forces typically employing firms that offer the lowest cost or quickest turnaround time for testing evidence, according to Clare Stangoe, principal scientist at Forensic Access, a leading provider of forensics services. The murder and sex crimes specialist said that whereas before scientists were given “the time they need”, they might now have to deliver results within three days, with the laboratory facing a fine if they are late.

“The danger comes where arbitrary time frames are put on work,” Stangoe said. “Too much pressure put on scientists to do the work so quickly [means] that they may only do very specifically what they have been asked … It could lead to mistakes being made or not enough being done to investigate something properly.”

She added: “There’s a lot of concern in the community [of forensic scientists], that you don’t want miscarriages of justice to take place in the future.”

Her comments were backed by Helen Kenny, who as branch secretary for the Prospect trade union at the Forensic Science Service represents 1,200 forensic scientists. She said demanding contract terms could encourage scientists to accept a “quick [DNA] match” rather than carry out the “best possible investigation”.

“Forensic scientists have concerns about the pressure on turnaround and price,” she said. While emphasising that the FSS had not told its scientists to compromise on quality, she said such pressures “can’t be good for the criminal justice system”.

The FSS used to have a monopoly on police forensics work, but competitive tendering has exposed it to commercial pressures and in June it announced plans to axe 800 jobs, to the anger of Prospect.

Professor Allan Jamieson, director of the Forensic Institute in Glasgow, said that the principle of competitive tendering was the right one but that it needed refinement.

“It’s the best way, done properly, to ensure the proper spending of public money. However, you need quality assessment as well as financial assessment,” he said.

Jamieson said there were similar pressures on the defence side, where the legal aid board would instinctively favour the lowest cost option.

The Home Office said: “Commercial suppliers have provided an excellent service in forensic analysis to the criminal justice system for many years. There is no evidence to suggest that that should change in the future.””

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