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January 22nd 2018

Civil Liberties

Lack of scrutiny over forensic testing is unacceptable and changes must be made to avoid more wrongful convictions

Leanne Stephenson

Leanne Stephenson

Solicitor, Civil Liberties

Lack of scrutiny over forensic testing is unacceptable and changes must be made to avoid more wrongful convictions

It is deeply concerning to learn of UK police forces increasingly using ‘low-cost’ and unaccredited private labs for forensic testing – a situation labelled as ‘unacceptable’ by the Government’s forensic regulator.

It is deeply concerning to learn of UK police forces increasingly using ‘low-cost’ and unaccredited private labs for forensic testing – a situation labelled as ‘unacceptable’ by the Government’s forensic regulator.

In her annual report, Gillian Tully has highlighted her growing concern that offenders could escape justice as a result, and that many innocent people could also be wrongly convicted.

Such is the scale of her concern, she has urged the Government to give her office statutory powers to ban substandard providers from carrying out such crucial tests.

She has also confirmed she intends to examine whether issues over forensics played a role in a number of high-profile rape cases collapsing before going to trial.

Her report is hardly a ringing endorsement of one of the most influential aspects of criminal investigations.

In fact, it suggests that scientific evidence, so long considered pretty much indisputable, is now in danger of becoming the cause of serious injustices.

Inaccurate forensic results have already led to innocent people being convicted

As specialists in supporting people following miscarriages of justice such as wrongful arrest and unlawful imprisonment, this report certainly makes for worrying reading.

Our Civil Liberties department at Hudgell Solicitors is currently representing a number of clients whose lives have been massively impacted upon due to wrongful convictions related to forensic results which were ultimately found to have been inaccurate.

Thousands more tests carried out at the Randox Testing Services laboratory in Manchester are now being retested as a criminal investigation into claims that data may have been manipulated continues.

In one case, young chef Billal Hartford lost his job having being wrongly convicted of drug-driving.

Mr Hartford only discovered there were concerns about tests conducted at the Randox lab when reading about it in the media, and having requested a retest with his local force his innocence was finally confirmed.

Such cases highlight the huge risk to the freedom of law-abiding citizens. People can lose their jobs, possible even their freedom, through convictions which, even if eventually overturned, can do irreversible damage to their lives and reputations.

Integrity of legal system relies on 100% reliability of evidence from police and forensics

The standards and reliability of forensic testing have been increasingly questioned in recent years, as forces are now routinely opting to outsource forensic work.

It follows the Government’s abolishment of the Forensic Science Service in 2012, resulting in forensic work being transferred to in-house police laboratories and private providers.

The regulator’s report show many forces appear to be behind schedule in bringing their own laboratories into line with official standards, with only a few meeting an October deadline to gain accreditation to carry out digital forensic science work.

Many laboratories being used are said to be unaccredited, with some reportedly not subject to any independent oversight.

Gillian Tully certainly pulled no punches in her words, suggesting there has been a lack of commitment from some forces which have been ‘dragging their heels’ with regards to gaining the accreditation needed to do tests themselves.

She also feels the independent companies have had too little accountability, calling for statutory powers to ensure those not moving towards compliance are removed from the process.

‘Quality standards are not a nice-to-have extra,” she said.

‘Doing something that you can’t necessarily stand behind in court is just inappropriate at every level.’

That is 100 per cent correct, but sadly, in our role at Hudgell Solicitors, we see far too many cases where law-abiding people find themselves accused of crimes even though the evidence has never stacked up or  reliable. That is simply wrong.

We expect our legal system to be fair and honest at all times, especially evidence presented by our police forces and the forensic tests which are relied so heavily upon by the courts.

Anything less, and our justice system is undermined, and convictions will quite rightly be questioned.

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