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‘People don’t think they can challenge forensic test results – but thousands are now in doubt and people should question convictions’

Lab testing

A lawyer representing people taking legal action against a forensic testing company after inaccurate results led to them being wrongly convicted says ‘wide-scale injustice’ could be uncovered as thousands more tests are reviewed.

Civil liberties specialists Hudgell Solicitors are advising a number of people who have had their convictions overturned as a result of samples being retested after coming back from Manchester-based Randox Testing Services with positive readings.

Just last week it was revealed that chef Billal Hartford, 21, of North Yorkshire, was wrongly banned from driving for a year, causing him to lose his job, when his test results suggested he’d been guilty of drug-driving.

He subsequently requested that his sample be retested after a major investigation into around 10,000 tests conducted at RTS was announced in February, following the arrest of two former employees on suspicion of the ‘manipulation’ of samples.

Now, Mr Petherbridge says another man, of West Yorkshire, is also taking action after having his conviction overturned following a retest.

He says the conviction – also for drug driving – has damaged his reputation with his employers, caused embarrassment for both he and his family and impacted significantly on his day to day life over the past year.

RTS was used by police forces across the UK, but following the arrest of two former employees in February, and allegations of samples being ‘manipulated’, tests – and resulting convictions – from more than 40 forces are now being reviewed.

‘Conviction damaged my reputation and embarrassed me and my family’

“It has had a massive impact on my life, and most of all it has damaged my reputation and been an embarrassment to myself and my family,” said the man, of Leeds, who asked not to be named.

“It really didn’t go down well with my employers. They thankfully were very good about it and allowed me to keep my job, but I had to go in and see my manager and say that I’d been convicted at court. That was difficult and it meant I couldn’t drive, which I had to do at work on occasion.

“It was a very difficult time for me, and all the time I couldn’t understand how I had tested positive, but yet you don’t feel you can argue with scientific results.

“It was all very quick from the police stopping me to the results coming back and me being in court. I was advised to plead guilty because of the evidence against me – evidence which was completely wrong. Still, I couldn’t say to my employer ‘I’m innocent, but I pleaded guilty’. It was all very strange.”

The man had been stopped by West Yorkshire Police last December, having spent the evening with friends. He says his passenger had smoked some cannabis that night, and when officers stopped his car, they said they could smell the drug.

“As they said they could smell cannabis and because I was driving, they wanted to test me. I knew I would not be positive but the officer said he wasn’t happy with the result and that I’d have to come to the station.

“I couldn’t believe it, but I’d never been in trouble with the police at all before so I just thought it best not to argue and do what I was told.

“When I got home, just before midnight, I had to explain to my parents that I’d been arrested at the station to give a sample for drug driving. My family were very supportive, but disappointed in me. I felt awful and stressed that I was sure I had done no wrong.”

Result wrongly suggested man had been almost three times over drug-drive limit

The man received a letter in January saying his sample had shown him to almost three times over the drug-drive limit. He was advised, in the face of scientific evidence, to plead guilty when appearing at Bradford Magistrates Court in February, receiving a 12-month driving ban and a £400 fine.

“I couldn’t really believe what had happened to me,” he said.

“At one point the magistrate was talking about banning me for three years. Losing a driving licence has a massive impact on life. My dad has had to drive me around and to and from work.

“I was also playing for an amateur football team at a decent level at the time but I had to quit that because I couldn’t travel to games. I also sold my car because I didn’t want it sat there for a year not being used.”

He finally had his conviction overturned when contacted by the court in November to say his sample had been retested and found to be negative. His licence was reinstated last week.

He says he now feels for others in the same situation as he found himself, and added: “It has damaged my trust and faith in the legal system. This was my first experience of it and I don’t have confidence in the police now.

“I just can’t understand it all. If the results of tests are found to have been deliberately manipulated, serious questions have to be asked why. What is the motivation for people to do that?

“Even if it is found not to have been a deliberate act, still how on earth can it happen? This is peoples’ lives we are talking about.”

‘Innocent people are wrongly having reputations and lives damaged’

Mr Petherbridge says Hudgell Solicitors is supporting a number of people who have had their convictions overturned after samples were tested at RTS.

He said: “This is quickly developing into a major scandal. We are now taking on new cases and there could be wide-scale injustice discovered as this investigation goes on.

“It has been reported that up to a quarter of the affected cases across 42 police forces were used in hundreds of cases relating to crimes such as rape, murder and sudden death. It is worrying to thing convictions in such cases could be unsafe.

“The simple facts are that innocent people are having their reputations damaged by false convictions. It is damaging to their lives at home, and at work, and socially.

“It is unacceptable that, for whatever the reason, people are being wrongly convicted. Randox Testing Services were responsible for ensuring the tests – on which livelihoods and liberties were at stake – were accurate.

“For results to be come back and lead to people being wrongly convicted is a disgrace.

“Clients have said to us that didn’t feel they could challenge the results of a forensic test. Our advice to people is that if you believe you were innocent, ask if your test could be one of the thousands under question and find out.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said around 1,500 retests will have been completed by the end of the year, but it could take as long as three years to complete the full investigation.

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21/12/2017 No Comments

Man launches legal action against Randox Testing Services after having conviction overturned for forensic test result being wrong

A man has told how his wrongful conviction – caused by the inaccurate result of a forensic drug test at a company now the centre of a huge investigation into alleged manipulation of samples – cost him his job and his freedom.

Billal Hartford, 21, was devastated when told a swab sample taken by police officers who stopped him when driving had come back as positive.

Insistent of his innocence, he denied the drug-driving charge against him, but was found guilty at court as the seemingly overwhelming and indisputable forensic evidence completely contradicted his plea.

It was a conviction which came at a cost, causing him to lose his employment as a chef, as he could no longer travel to and from work. He also says the conviction effectively robbed him of his ‘freedom’, as he lives in a remote area.

When convicted in December of last year, Mr Hartford was facing 12 months off the road and had to rely on friends and family to help him get around.

His search for a new job also proved difficult, again due to the need to drive from his isolated home in the small hamlet of Skutterskelfe, near Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire.

However, having seen national news reports in February detailing allegations of manipulation of forensic results at Randox Testing Services (RTS) – a company used by police forces across the UK – Mr Hartford contacted police to ask if his sample had been sent to the centre.

It was found that it had, and when retested his sample was found to be clear, leading to his conviction being quashed and his licence returned.

Thousands of forensic samples having to be retested due to ‘manipulation’ concerns

Now, as it has been revealed that around 10,000 tests from more than 40 forces may have been affected, including in convictions relating to violent crime, sexual offences and unexplained deaths, Mr Hartford has urged more people to demand retests if they have been convicted, but know they are innocent.

“I think it’s shocking how something like this can happen to people,” said Mr Hartford.

“There is supposed to be an official legal system in place and I simply can’t believe how peoples’ lives can be ruined by being wrongly convicted of crimes. Forensic results are seen as being the undisputed evidence – but it is not the case now.

“I live in a rural area and losing my driving licence affected me massively. I had just started a new job working as a chef and I lost that job because I couldn’t drive and get to and from work when I needed to be there. Then couldn’t get a new job. The nearest shop from my house is nearly two miles away and I had to get lifts from family and friends. I spent a lot of money on taxis too.

“I was depressed because I was stuck not being able to do anything. It may not seem the most serious of convictions but your driving licence is your freedom and that was taken away from me. If I had been over the limit and had committed an offence, then I would have accepted it. But this was for nothing.

“Now we are told thousands of cases are having to be reviewed so there will be more people out there who have been convicted and don’t even know about this.

“Their situations and the impact on their lives could be much worse. I feel sorry for them, it’s not fair.”

Police stopped driver after reports of similar car driving erratically

Mr Hartford was stopped by three local police officers in August of last year and was asked to provide a sample.

“They said they’d stopped me because they’d had reports of a car similar to mine driving erratically, so that is fine, I have no issue with that,” he said.

“One of the officers said he thought he could smell cannabis – and I admit that I did have some cannabis in the car. I am an occasional user, like many. They took a saliva swab at the side of the road and the next thing I knew I was under arrest for possession, taken into custody and I was interviewed.

“After that, I was taken to a cell while waiting for a nurse to come from York, which took about two hours. I went into a room with the nurse and the arresting officer, and I was asked if I was fit and willing to provide a sample, which I did.

“She took blood from me and a sample was given to me and they said I could have it independently tested, but I didn’t feel there was a need to. I signed a document and was in the cell for another hour before they let me go.

“When I went to answer bail a month later, they said I was being charged. I went to court and was fined for the cannabis possession, but also found guilty of drug driving because of the test result, and that meant that I lost my licence. It all seemed so unfair.

“Had the sample come back as negative I would never have lost my licence. The forensic test was seen as gospel, and of course, being in possession simply meant that nobody believed me. I’d never drive having taken drugs though, just as I wouldn’t drink alcohol and drive.”

Civil action launched for wrongful conviction and breach of duty of care

Mr Hartford says he faced a battle to prove his innocence, calling first the CPS, then appealing to have his driving ban suspended pending the outcome, before a court hearing when his sample had been retested.

He said: “When I arrived at court that day, my solicitor told me my sample had been re-tested and that the result had been clear. There were zero traces of drugs in my system and the judge looked at me and apologised. He said ‘someone is to blame here’ for what happened to me. I was delighted to have my licence back.”

Now, with his conviction quashed and his licence returned, Mr Hartford has launched legal action against Randox Testing Services through human rights and civil liberties specialists Hudgell Solicitors

Solicitor, Simon Wilson said: “There can be no doubt that Mr Hartford has suffered significantly as a result of the test results wrongly coming back as positive.

“It cost him his driving licence, and had it not been for him becoming aware of the investigation into alleged manipulation of results, he would have remained unable to drive for a year.

“There was clear duty of care on Randox Testing Services, given the high importance of the role they were entrusted to take up on behalf of police forces, to ensure the sample was properly tested and the right result reached. This did not happen.

“We are currently being instructed by more clients in similar circumstances to this issue, again relating to tests carried out by this company, and the scale of potential harm and possible wrongful convictions this may have led to is deeply concerning.

“Mr Hartford was fortunate in that he saw the news reports and quickly acted to challenge his conviction. Had he not, he would still be without his licence now.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said the matter has led to around 50 cases being dropped so far which had been due to go to trial. Around 1,500 retests will have been completed by the end of the year, but it could take as long as three years to complete the full investigation.

Even then it may not be possible to retest all samples under question, as some may no longer be viable because of their quality or quantity.

Mr Hartford added: “I think someone should be going out of their way to tell people whose samples may have been tested there. I only heard about it in the news and I had to contact the police.

“I think everyone should be made aware. It’s not right. People shouldn’t have to fight and go out of their way like I have.

“I’m taking legal action because I want something back for them ruining six months of my life. I was stuck in the house for most of the time. It was awful and it really affected me.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this. Some might face jail for doing nothing wrong and that is disgraceful.”

Related News 

Northern Echo 

ITV News 

The Times 

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11/12/2017 No Comments

Concern over possible wrongful convictions as report highlights police and prosecutors failings over evidence

Investigations File Label.

A new report has highlighted deeply concerning issues over the failure of police and prosecutors to fully disclose all evidence in advance of court trials failings which it is said could be leading to wrongful convictions.

The ‘Making it Fair’ report by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSi) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has highlighted how many areas of evidence are not being disclosed to the defence until the very last moment, if at all.

This is a shocking situation.

A defendant has the right for all evidence to be fully explored by their legal team and then challenged in court to ensure a fair trial. This failure undermines that basic principle of our legal system.

Ensuring their legal representatives are aware of such evidence well in advance is essential, yet this report says there are often “chaotic scenes” outside courtrooms over disclosure failings at the “last-minute”.

Defence unaware of vital evidence as cases went to trial

Examples given in the report make for worrying reading.

One case involved an alleged sexual assault involving a child, but the case had to be delayed when it emerged a day before the trial that the child had written a letter which contradicted their evidence.

In another case where a defendant was to stand trial for burglary, police and prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to the defence that although chisel marks had been found on a window of the burgled property and that the defendant was found with a chisel, the two didn’t match.

The jury were discharged and a retrial ordered after the judge decided their view of the matter had been distorted by the failure.

In summary, the report suggests police and prosecutors are undermining justice in criminal trials by failing to follow basic rules.

HMCPSi chief inspector Kevin McGinty says the failure ‘has a corrosive effect on the criminal justice system’, undermining the principles of a fair trial, and that is certainly something I’d agree with.

Securing convictions must never come at the cost of our legal rights

Through our work at Hudgell Solicitors in representing people in actions against the police such as for wrongful arrest and unlawful detention, we see too many occasions where police forces have failed to follow basic standards and procedures.

It is therefore sadly not a shock to me to see the report has found police officers’ record keeping to be ‘routinely poor’.

We all appreciate the pressures on police forces to secure successful convictions, drive down crime rates and make our streets and communities safer.

But handling that pressure and meeting targets must never come at the expense of breaching our human rights and in particular that right to a fair trial as set out in Article 6 European Convention of Human Rights.

Such failures will inevitably, in some case, lead to innocent people being wrongly convicted.

Each and every case brought to trial must be done fairly and in a way in which a jury can make a verdict based on all evidence gathered.

Sadly, at present, that may not be the case for all, and that is not how the justice system was devised to work.

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18/07/2017 No Comments

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