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Last Updated: Monday, 4 September 2006, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Court fingerprint system scrapped
Shirley McKie
The shake-up has been prompted by the Shirley McKie case
The 53-year-old system under which fingerprint evidence is presented in Scotland's courts has been scrapped.

It has been replaced by a new standard said to enable experts to offer a fuller explanation of fingerprints.

They can now discuss all the features rather than focus on 16 points of matching, required by the old system.

The move comes after controversy over identification in the case of former police officer Shirley McKie, accused of leaving a print at a murder scene.

It was announced by the Scottish Police Services Authority and welcomed by Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson.

Training has improved considerably since 1997, verification processes have improved and we now competency-test all our experts
David Mulhern
Scottish Police Services Authority

She said: "The move to the non-numeric standard, which is already in place in other jurisdictions, will enable a better understanding of fingerprint evidence in Scottish courts."

The 16-point system required experts to demonstrate a minimum 16 points in agreement between any two prints.

England and Wales moved to a non-numeric standard in 2001.

In Scotland, fingerprint evidence came under intense public scrutiny in the Shirley McKie affair.

'No logical requirement'

Ms McKie won 750,000 in an out-of-court settlement from the Scottish Executive in February this year.

She was wrongly accused of leaving her fingerprint at a murder scene while serving as a detective in Ayrshire and cleared of perjury in 1999.

David Mulhern, interim chief executive of the Scottish Police Services Authority, said the adoption of the new standard would not, of itself, have made a difference in the McKie case.

The potential for mistakes is worse than before
Iain McKie

But other reforms launched in the aftermath of that case could prevent a repetition, he said.

These included new processes and tougher verification procedures, requiring three separate individuals to be satisfied about a fingerprint.

He said: "Training has improved considerably since 1997, verification processes have improved and we now competency-test all our experts.

"That is what will stop a Shirley McKie happening again."

Ms McKie's father Iain welcomed the move but said the "culture and management" within the fingerprint service needed reform.

Move welcomed

The retired policeman said: "The non-numerical standard is actually a more scientific system, and the potential for mistakes is worse than before.

"So what is essential is to get the culture and management right, and I think to some extent it has been rushed in - they should get the culture and management in place."

A spokesman for the Scottish Fingerprint Service said: "It has long been a recognised fact there is no scientific or logical requirement why a certain number of points need to be demonstrated to present evidence in court."

The service said fingerprint evidence would now be presented in court on every occasion where identity was established.

Margaret Mitchell MSP, Scottish Conservative Justice spokeswoman, said: "Anything that adds to the clarity and efficiency of the process is very welcome."

"However, the key to the whole procedure is that fiscals get the very best out of their expert witnesses, asking the relevant questions to elicit the right response."

The Lord Advocate, Lord Boyd, said the change would help criminal courts reach "informed decisions" on evidence presented to them.

SNP MSP Alex Neil repeated his demand for a full inquiry into the McKie case.

He added: "This brings Scotland into line with the practice elsewhere and is, on the whole, a good move in my opinion.

"The introduction of the non-numeric system for fingerprinting does not sweep the McKie case under the carpet."


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