Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Tuesday, 8 December 2009

'Dangers' of a free market in forensic science

By Paul Burnell
File on 4

'Luke' (not his real name) was sentenced to three years in jail when a court decided he had "kicked another man's head like a football".

DNA test generic
The FSS announced major redundancies earlier this year

Part of the evidence heard in court was based on the spots of the assaulted man's blood which were found on his shoe.

Luke claims he had gone to stop another man assaulting the victim, saying the blood on his shoe: "Put me at the scene of the crime, which I never denied anyway."

After his conviction, Luke's family hired private forensic science provider Forensic Access who carried out a further test and called a blood pattern analysis (BPA).

'Vital' test

According to Dave King, Business Manager of Forensic Access the test came to a stark conclusion. "We can see from photos in the case file there is only a small amount of blood," he says. "There is no way that piece of footwear could have made contact with somebody's head."

Mr King said that the BPA would have doubled the cost of the forensic evidence, adding it was why he believed the test was not called for by the police.

Chris Sims
Forensics can be critical to a case but never have I ever seen a case that stood alone on forensic science
Chris Sims, Acpo

"Cost is always a factor," he says. "This exemplifies what is happening in forensic science... the procurement side has taken over in awarding contracts. Those contracts have put pressure on providers and the police themselves - the times they have to perform their work have been reduced."

Dyfed and Powys Police said it is not for the police to comment on the case adding that the defendant had been through the criminal justice system and was convicted in a court of law with the right to appeal, which he should do through the courts.

Chris Sims, who takes the lead on forensics for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said the police need to get value for money but doubts that this need to balance the budget affects cases like Luke's.

"You've got to look at the whole evidence. What was the identification evidence? What are the other circumstances?," he said.

"Forensics can be critical to a case but never have I ever seen a case that stood alone on forensic science."


Some critics, however, believe justice has been jeopardised by cost-cutting in forensic science since the government-owned Forensic Science Service (FSS) became an independent company four years ago, having to compete for its work with the private sector.

Police forces in England and Wales have agreed to put all their forensic contracts out to tender.

There's a conflict in my mind between what the police want and what you think should be done as a forensic scientist
Caroline Eames, Prospect

Caroline Eames of the union Prospect says under this new system scientists are regularly torn between testing evidence based on their professional judgement and experience and working to the narrower specifications their police paymasters may have ordered.

"There's a conflict in my mind between what the police want and what you think should be done as a forensic scientist," she says. "It does stop you thinking like a scientist, you just do what the police tell you and there is a danger of missing something vital."

Andy Rennison, the new forensic science regulator, says the concerns of people such as Caroline Eames are worrying but he added: "What we have to bear in mind is that there are tough decisions to be made and there is not an open cheque book to pay some expensive bills for forensic science."

Cash crisis

The FSS is currently facing a financial crisis with its latest accounts showing a drop in turnover of £70m to March 2008 - figures which will be exacerbated by subsequent losses of police business.

This autumn the government announced FSS would close three of its main labs with the loss of 700 jobs.

Caroline Eames blames the new market in forensic science, stating: "We have lost an awful lot of work."

The Home Office told File on 4: "The decision to change the status of the Forensic Science Service from an Executive Agency to a government-owned limited company was taken following a recommendation of an independent review of the service in 2003."

It said the change helped to create effective competition with the private sector in an existing commercial market.

The statement added: "The Forensic Science Service Ltd remains a highly valuable and effective contributor to the UK Criminal Justice System, and we intend that it remains so for many years to come."

File on 4 is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 8 December, at 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday, 13 December, at 1700 GMT. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast or download the podcast.

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