Aug 12, 2019 by Foresight
The Intersection of Price and Quality in Forensic Science?
Arrogen Forensics and Foresight Clinical Services are independent organisations that work together closely to provide a holistic approach to the delivery of expert witness services throughout the criminal legal process.
Forensic science in England and Wales is delivered by a wide range of forensic providers that include the police, private commercial companies, academic institutions and a range of very small companies and individuals providing specialist services.
Prosecution work that is outsourced by the police is largely procured via competitive tendering exercises. Until recently, this tendering process was managed centrally via the National Forensic Framework and work was let as a series of separate ‘lots’. The contracts were of short duration, typically three years in length, and were product based and price driven.
Competitive tendering has driven down prices and secured short turnaround times. However, the delivery of the science has been commoditised. Forensic strategies have been set largely by the police; forensic scientists deliver the products that have been authorised, with the emphasis on carrying out the minimum number of tests in order to reduce spend.
Some recent tenders, no longer part of the National Forensic Framework, have seen a change in emphasis towards a more collaborative relationship with suppliers with the focus on ‘better outcomes’ rather than monitoring the costs of tests.
The Forensic Science Regulator has just published her annual report, which states that “The quality of forensic science work in England and Wales is at risk and could threaten the integrity of the criminal justice system”.
The report recognises that the single biggest challenge to the quality of forensic science work is financial, both in terms of the costs associated with forensic suppliers complying with accreditation standards and with funding for forensic science across the board. In particular, the Regulator highlights the need for funding via legal aid for defence provision and notes that without adequate funding we will face the costs of quality failures and loss of confidence in forensic science. The report states that current legal aid rates make offering high quality scientific advice to the defence very challenging.
The costs of accreditation are onerous for all forensic suppliers and are increasing with the additional requirement to be assessed against the Forensic Regulator’s Codes of Practice and Conduct. Whilst any accreditation system that leads to the standardisation and improvement of quality standards within forensic science is welcomed, the financial burden, especially on smaller companies, is significant.
The report highlights that this is recognised by the police themselves and it also questions the commitment of the mangers within the police to the accreditation standards as demonstrated by the quote within the report: “We can deliver operational work or adopt the quality standards but not both”.
Within the defence market, the cost of accreditation is causing real concern and will question the viability of sole traders who will be expected to be accredited to the ISO 17020 standard for Case Review. The Chartered Society of Forensic Science is working with UKAS to identify a more cost effective way for sole traders and small companies to be able to be able to achieve accreditation and, without this, the set-up and ongoing costs of accreditation will surely be prohibitive.
The importance of having high quality scientific advice available to the defence is perhaps higher now than it ever has been. The Regulator’s Annual Report highlights several of the risks posed by the current forensic marketplace, and these have been well recognised by forensic scientists acting for the defence for a number of years. Some of the main risks are as follows:
Streamlined Forensic Reports
SFRs are designed to provide the forensic evidence to the defence at an early stage in order for them to determine if the findings should be disputed prior to the first hearing. However, SFRs contain so little information that, without expert advice, it will often be unclear as to whether the findings should be challenged. Additionally, SFRs can be used inappropriately, for example with complex matters such as DNA mixtures being reported by non-experts when an expert assessment is required.
Setting the forensic strategy based on all of the available information, and taking into account the defence hypothesis, is critical in ensuring appropriate examinations and outcomes. This strategy setting has moved away from the forensic expert to the police and will be significantly dictated by budgets. The Regulator highlights the variability in the level of knowledge and training in those setting forensic strategies.
The sensitivity of the latest DNA techniques also means that anticontamination procedures must be robust enough to avoid the inadvertent transfer of DNA. The report refers to inadequacies with Forensic Medical Examiners, quoting an example of a Medical Examiner being asked to examine the suspect and victim in the same case. It also states that “the potential for DNA contamination in police custody remains a significant risk”.
DNA testing has become so sensitive that mixtures of DNA from more than one person are more common and appropriate interpretation of these mixtures is both critical and complex. The Regulator highlights that different approaches taken by diverse suppliers means that different values for likelihood ratios are being obtained with “no right answer”.
Much firearms classification is undertaken by police armourers and the Regulator has advised that “simple classification”, which may be appropriate for an armourer to carry out, should be done so in the context of an alternative quality framework. This has not been developed and the report acknowledges that the risk with classification remains high.
Digital Forensics remains an area of concern for the Regulator and presents a significant risk, with many methods not being validated and objective evidence of competence lacking. It appears that many digital providers will not meet the October 2017 deadline to gain the necessary accreditation standards.
The Regulator’s report provides an objective and balanced review of the forensic marketplace and highlights the issues and risks that currently face forensic science. The report underlines the importance of obtaining expert advice in order for the defence to understand the evidence, including any limitations, and of choosing the most competent expert witness for assessments and reports, in order to ensure that solicitors are able to do their job and provide the best and most professional and cost effective service for their clients.
Foresight Clinical Services is a leading national expert witness service, providing expert witnesses to criminal solicitors, family solicitors, local authorities, barristers and private clients. It provides expert witnesses across all medical disciplines as well as forensic accountancy and forensic IT.
Foresight’s high quality responsive service supports legal professionals and the public sector by utilising an extensive, carefully selected network of experts to provide a professional and timely approach to expert witness provision.
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