Police forces are having to ration forensic toxicology work, especially samples from suspected drug drivers, because there is not enough capacity in the system to handle the volume of work, the outgoing forensic science regulator has said.
Dr Gillian Tully, who steps down from her post after six years on Tuesday, said the service needs to be treated as critical national infrastructure and given the funding and regulatory powers necessary to maintain the integrity of the criminal justice system.
She warns that police forces are having to ration certain types of tests which leads to backlogs in cases, and that parts of the sector remain in a precarious position due to the shortfalls.
“Essentially, road traffic toxicology work, is having to be rationed because there isn’t enough capacity for every police force to submit every sample that they’d like to submit,” she said. “The inescapable conclusion is that offenders who are suspected of driving while under the influence of drugs are tolerated and allowed to present a continuing threat to communities.”
She added that the high workload of staff working in these laboratories also risks undermining the quality of their analysis.
Tully also called for greater scrutiny of scientific evidence in court, including training lawyers and police officers on the limitations of forensic science – particularly digital evidence – as well as the need for greater training of medical examiners working with sexual assault victims, to ensure vital physical evidence is not missed.
The role of the regulator is to develop scientific quality standards for the various forensic disciplines and to ensure that police and private laboratories offering these services in England and Wales are meeting them. Tully took up the appointment in November 2014, having worked in forensic science for more than 25 years, specialising in DNA.
During her tenure, she warned of wide-ranging problems that threaten the justice system, with too few providers meeting the quality standards that are meant to prevent errors. She has also criticised the government for failing to give the regulator the necessary powers to enforce standards, despite committing to do so in 2016.
She said that progress had been made towards improving the reliability of scientific techniques and the implementation of quality standards by forensic labs. “But there is still a very long way to go to make sure we have a system that operates in a way that supports research and development, delivery of day-to-day services, alongside quality as well – and that it is not robbing Peter to pay Paul for one or other of those,” she said.
She also warned that alongside toxicology labs there are similar capacity problems existing in digital labs, such as those recovering data from computer hard drives and mobile phones, resulting in a backlog of devices waiting to be processed.
“It means some cases will just be waiting and the investigations won’t be proceeding until those devices eventually are reached,” Tully said. Although these capacity problems have been known about for several years, little has been done to rectify the situation, she added.
Meanwhile, those working in the criminal justice system need better training on how to interpret the evidence being presented in court and understand its limitations. This is particularly true of digital evidence such as cell site analysis – used to pinpoint where a mobile phone was used at the time of an incident.
Tully said: “I think there’s a lot of accepting at face value. What I would like is more understanding throughout the whole criminal justice system, of what the limitations are on all types of evidence.
“There is the potential for evidence to be misunderstood, misconstrued and given either more or less weight than it should be given. A miscarriage of justice is at the extreme end of what that can lead to, but it could just give more weight to a particular piece of evidence in the minds of jurors, that they perhaps ought to put less weight on, or or vice versa.”
She urged her successor to take a systematic approach to improving forensic science, and called on the government to prioritise the area: “Forensic science provision, ought to be treated as an important national infrastructure and given the priority it deserves across government – including adequate funding to support quality and delivery and research. And there ought to be legislation to enable the regulator, when necessary, to prevent people from delivering services that pose a risk to the criminal justice system.”