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24 August 2011

Forensic Science shutdown already costing more

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By Sangeeta Bedi

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The closure of the government-owned Forensic Science Service is already looking like a poor decision, not only for the quality of justice people will receive but also for the budgets it was intended to save. The FSS was earmarked for closure in December 2010, to be wound down until March 2012 (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11989225). The Home Office cited its £24m annual loss as unsustainable and promised that private provision would expand to fill the gap (which is sizeable – the FSS was providing some 60% of such work in England and Wales).

Opponents of the closure argued that the protection provided by forensic evidence, both in apprehending the guilty (Ipswich serial killer Steven Wright) and exonerating the innocent (Sean Hodgson, who spent 27 years in prison before DNA evidence proved that he could not have murdered Teresa de Simone in 1979), should not be wholly abandoned to the mercy of the marketplace. It was said that a ‘race to the bottom’ culture could see vital examination foregone and critical evidence overlooked and that the quality of private laboratories would not be as thoroughly assured as that of the FSS. Shababa Mahmood MP, Shadow Home Officer Minister, accused the government of putting police forces in an impossible position of having to decide between cutting costs and cutting quality (see http://www.labour.org.uk/forensic-science-service-closure,2011-08-04?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LabourPartyNews+%28The+Labour+Party+-+Latest+news%29)

The Commons Science & Technology Committee last month criticised the closure, citing a failure to consider wider criminal justice system implications in favour of a financial bottom line. The Committee called for a six month delay in winding down the FSS and a ban on local police forces bringing services in-house, where again standards could not be guaranteed.

Nonetheless the closure is going ahead as planned and already evidence suggests that the decision may have been short-sighted. Andrew White, the chief executive of Hertfordshire police authority, has reported that, in order to ensure forensic services are still available in the autumn, he has been forced into signing off on private contracts without sufficient due diligence and quality assurance and in some instances at a higher price than that charged by the FSS (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/03/forensic-science-service-closure-police). In particular, Mr White highlighted that the companies he had engaged had little by way of reputation in the UK and were having to expand their provision to cope with the extra work, neither of which criticism can be levelled at the FSS.

Obviously this is only one example but logic suggests that displacing a large tranche of services from one quality-assured central agency to a legion of untested providers attempting to rapidly populate a new market is unlikely to benefit anyone but the Treasury, least of all police forces requiring consistent support in investigating serious crime.

Furthermore, before even considering the human cost to victims of miscarriages of justice, how much will the taxpayer eventually pay in compensation to those wrongfully imprisoned? Could that itself consume the expected saving of £24m a year, which the Science & Technology Committee claims could be reduced through other measures?

The need for cuts across public services is beyond argument. However, it should be remembered that policing and criminal justice are complex structures which, if they need to be dismantled, should be handled with care rather than rug-pulling. In particular, the closure of the FSS may be an example of the intended saving resulting only in a reshuffle of responsibility (and blame when things go wrong) from those we can hold accountable for it, to those who are here today, long gone tomorrow.

Corker Binning is a law firm specialising in criminal work of all kinds.  For more information call us on 020 7353 6000 or go to www.corkerbinning.com.

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