The House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Fox to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment it has made of (1) the forensic services available to the criminal justice system, and (2) the Forensic Capability Network.

At the time of writing, a date for the debate is yet to be scheduled.

What are forensic science services?

Forensic science services refer to the application of science and technologies to criminal investigations and court proceedings. In England and Wales, forensic science services are provided through a combination of in-house police force and commercial provision.

A joint forensics review by the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs Counsel (NPCC), and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) published in 2019 lists several forensic science disciplines. These include but are not limited to:

  • crime scene investigation;
  • DNA;
  • toxicology;
  • fingerprint comparison;
  • trace evidence (such as hair, glass, and gunshot residue etc);
  • handwriting analysis;
  • digital forensics (such as the interpretation of data from mobiles and CCTV); and
  • forensic medical examinations.

The joint review considered the quality, cost and delivery of forensic services and the impact on outcomes in the criminal justice system. It highlighted several benefits of the current model such as fast turnaround times and reduced costs when using commercial providers. However, it also noted several problems, including concerns raised by the Forensic Science Regulator about quality standards.

Certain law enforcement organisations have also raised concerns in recent years. In November 2019, the then APCC lead for forensics, Martyn Underhill, set out several issues faced by forensic science service providers. This included challenges in meeting accreditation requirements, as well as an increase in the demand for services as the digital footprint of crime expands.

The Government published an implementation plan alongside the joint forensics review that set out recommendations and actions. Actions included using the Forensic Capability Network to better coordinate police force approaches to forensics, as well as supporting statutory powers of enforcement for the Forensic Science Regulator to better ensure quality standards of forensic services.

What is the Forensic Capability Network?

The Forensic Capability Network (FCN) is a membership organisation for the forensic science community. Following investment by the Home Office, the new FCN launched in April 2020 and is operated by the policing community on behalf of police forces and law enforcement organisations in England and Wales.

The FCN states that its core aim is to enable national collaboration of forensic science services:

At [the FCN’s] heart is the desire to work together nationally to deliver high quality, specialist forensic science capabilities, to share knowledge, and to improve resilience, efficiency, quality and effectiveness.

Amongst other things, the FCN provides a knowledge base, development programmes and support to forensics practitioners.

The FCN was developed as part of the NPCC’s ‘transforming forensics’ programme. This programme aims to develop services to deliver quality, specialist forensics capabilities that can better support victims of crime, communities, and law enforcement organisations in England and Wales.

Who is the Forensic Science Regulator?

The Government announced the appointment of Gary Pugh as the new Forensic Science Regulator (the regulator) on 17 May 2021. Mr Pugh is the former director of forensic services in the Metropolitan Police Service and is cited to have more than 40 years of experience in forensic science. Mr Pugh, who will be in office for three years, replaced the interim regulator, Rupert Shute.

The purpose of the regulator is to ensure that forensic science services in the criminal justice system are carried out with objectivity and impartiality, and also comply with scientific standards.

Responsibilities of the regulator include but are not limited to:

  • establishing and monitoring forensic science service standards;
  • ensuring that those who supply forensic science services to the police (including in-house police services) are accredited;
  • providing advice on standards in forensic science to the Government, criminal justice system organisations, and suppliers; and
  • handling complaints from stakeholders and the public.

The role of regulator has recently been given a statutory footing. The Government first established the role of Forensic Science Regulator in 2007, however it did not have statutory powers to enforce compliance with codes of practice or to investigate quality issues.

To address this, the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 came into force 29 April 2021. This gave the role of regulator a statutory footing, along with powers to enforce a statutory code of practice for forensic science activities in the England and Wales criminal justice system. The House of Lords Library briefing ‘Forensic Science Regulator Bill’ provides information about what the act does, as well as a timeline of support that led up to the recent statutory regulation.

Recent parliamentary discussion and Government commitments

The House of Lords considered forensic science services in the criminal justice system in a debate on 26 April 2021.

As part of this debate, it took note of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s 2019 report ‘Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System: A Blueprint for Change’. In the report, the committee said there had been a decline in the quality of forensic sciences in England and Wales, describing the quality and delivery of services as “inadequate”. The committee attributed this decline to insufficiencies in leadership, funding, and research and development. The report included several recommendations to address the issue, including giving the Forensic Science Regulator statutory powers.

The House of Lords Library briefing ‘Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System’ (April 2021) provides further details on the committee report’s contents, recommendations, and the Government’s subsequent response.

Introducing the debate, Lord Patel (Crossbench), the chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, said the “delivery of justice depended on the integrity and accuracy of forensic science evidence and the trust that society has in it”. With specific reference to the FCN, Lord Patel spoke of alleged scepticism from several police forces about the network’s impact.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Labour) also spoke of the importance of integrity in forensic science. She said that inadequacies in forensic services were “endangering that integrity, as well as undermining public confidence”.

On funding, Lord Krebs (Crossbench) cited academic evidence that suggested there had been a decline in forensics funding by research councils. As such, he asked the Government for further information on the amount of public funding spent of forensic science research.

On leadership, several peers including Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (Crossbench) and Lord Fox (Liberal Democrat) spoke of the importance of independence and accountability in forensic science. Lord Fox asked the Government to confirm which department or organisation is ultimately accountable for the quality of provision of forensic science services.

Baroness Williams of Trafford, the Minister of State for the Home Office, responded on behalf of the Government. She said that scientifically robust evidence was an important tool in crime investigation, and reiterated the Government’s commitment to protecting the public.

In response to Lord Krebs’ question on funding, the minister said that the Government had invested over £28 million in 2020‒21 in the transforming forensics programme, and a further £25.6 million in 2021‒22 to “continue to strengthen forensics services for policing, including digital forensics”.

In response to Lord Fox’s question about leadership, the minister confirmed that the Home Office is ultimately accountable for the quality of forensic service provision.

The minister also referred to a forensic science reform programme that the Government and other stakeholders were working on:

[…] we are working with the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Forensic Science Regulator, policing, the Attorney-General’s office and other key stakeholders to deliver our forensic science reform programme. That programme was agreed by the Criminal Justice Board in July last year. It will make good on the commitments set out in the joint review of forensics provision implementation plan published in 2019, and will go some way to tackling the issues identified in the committee’s excellent report. The reform programme is organised around four pillars to deliver strategic oversight and leadership across the criminal justice system for the future of forensics.

With reference to the then Forensic Science Regulator Bill, the minister said that the former regulator had described how an absence of statutory enforcement powers had resulted in slower progress towards compliance with quality standards across the forensics community. Therefore, the minister said the Government fully supported legislation that would ensure that quality standards could be enforced when necessary.

Read more

Cover image by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash.