The science and technology committee says its inquiry into forensic science has identified a 'serious deficit of high-level leadership and oversight' from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. Simultaneous budget cuts and reorganisation, and exponential growth in the need for new services such as digital evidence, have put forensic science providers under extreme pressure.
'The result is a forensic science market which is becoming dysfunctional and which, unless it is properly regulated, will soon suffer the shocks of major forensic science providers going out of business and putting justice in jeopardy,' the report says. Furthermore, fair access to justice for defendants has been hampered by legal aid cuts.
To ensure the operational independence of the police, independence of the courts and safeguard forensic science, the committee recommends creating an arms-length body which would be responsible for the coordination, strategy and direction of forensic science. Known as the Forensic Science Board, it would be chaired by a retired judge experienced in criminal casework and should have properly funded statutory powers. It was recommended the regulator's remit should be expanded to include responsibility for regulating the market, and the Legal Aid Agency should liaise with this regulatory arm to set new pricing schemes, properly funded by the ministry.
As part of their continuing professional development, criminal advocates should be required to undertake training on the use of scientific evidence in court and basic scientific principles such as probability, scientific interference and research methods. The committee was told by digital forensic practitioners during the inquiry that defence lawyers frequently do not think about the potential value that the digital evidence might have in a particular case.
The committee says legal practitioners must also understand better the timescales involved in interrogating and analysing digital evidence where modern technology is not used, and these must be built into the pre-trial process.
Lord Patel, chair of the committee, said the current situation cannot continue. 'Since 2012 the Home Office has made empty promises to give the Forensic Science Regulator statutory powers but still no action has been taken. We believe that seven years is an embarrassing amount of time to delay legislation. Our forensic science provision has now reached breaking point and a complete overhaul is needed,' he said.