A free society is dependent on the rule of law which in turn relies on equality of access to justice. The evidence received by this committee points to failings in the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system and these can be attributed to an absence of high-level leadership, a lack of funding and an insufficient level of research and development.
House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report, April 2019
These failings, in the words of the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, were “embarrassing” and revealed “an abdication of responsibility”. This is the highly critical, even unusual, language contained in the report, Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System: A Blueprint for Change. But for anyone following the story about the state of the UK’s forensic provision, it comes as no surprise. Such language may even be born of frustration.
The science presented in our courts is a vital tool to ensure justice is delivered for victims and society at large. The methods forensic scientists use must be valid, scientifically robust and understandable to the court – including the jury. Where that science fails or is unreliable, cases can be thrown out, collapse or even result in wrongful convictions or acquittals. It is in all of our interests to ensure that science does the job we need it to do.
The current problem is that the science in our courts is not as robust, reliable and properly communicated as it needs to be. There is a growing recognition within government, parliament and the justice institutions, that the criminal justice system is not keeping pace with scientific advances, with particularly urgent needs in the digital domain.
The UK is not alone regarding grave concerns about forensic science. In 2009, the US National Academy of Science (NAS) published a report that challenged the integrity and validation of evidence types being admitted into courts, highlighting that most were scientifically not fit for purpose.
In the UK, The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology produced two highly critical reports about the use of forensic science in 2011 and again in 2013. More recently, in 2016, the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) reiterated these concerns, and was clear that despite repeated warnings on the health of forensic science, little had been done to address them in the intervening years.
In reading the House of Lords report, it is reasonable to ask how public and judicial confidence has survived for as long as it has in the face of repeated authoritative criticism. It is now clear that the risk to the stability of the justice system, should this latest report go as unheeded (as previous calls for reform have), will be significant. If no action is taken, there will be a collapse in both public and judicial confidence, which could manifest in miscarriages of justice.
Dearth of research
Historically, the focus of forensic science research and innovation has mostly been associated with capitalising on preexisting technologies in other disciplines, such as analytical chemistry, material science or molecular genetics, where techniques have been developed in detection and analysis.
This has given rise to unintended consequences and operational challenges, such as contamination prevention and increased sample complexity. In addition, the interpretation, evaluation and communication of evidence and its weight in the context of individual case circumstances remains at times very challenging, particularly in the absence of sufficient “ground truth” databases. In order to know what is unusual in a crime scene we must first know what is normal. The databases allow researchers to test and validate current and emergent technologies or algorithmic models.
Outside of fictional dramatisations of forensic science, there is a lack of engagement with new technologies. The dearth of research funding and the undercutting race to win police contracts in England and Wales has stifled support of innovation and improvements in practice and science.
The House of Lords report offers a blueprint for change. In particular, urging a new way forward for research in forensic science that embraces an interdisciplinary approach and brings all parts of the community together to discuss, co-create and prioritise research questions and establish a vision in which all parties can be invested.
The way forward
This approach has already been adopted by the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee where we bring scientists, the judiciary, police and forensic science practitioners together with others from outside of science to create brightspots of activity in an effort to properly address the issues as a community.
These strategic conversations have begun to articulate the research needs of the community around DNA, digital evidence, transfer (how things move from one surface to another) and persistence (how long things stay on the surface they have moved to), and background abundance of a wide range of evidence types. Our work is laying the groundwork for the “ground truths” – using controlled experiments generating data from known starting points – that are required in order to then understand the weight of evidence recovered in casework.
To positively disrupt an entire scientific community is no small challenge, but it is already clear from decades of trying, that if we carry on doing the same things with the same community partners, then we cannot possibly be surprised when we simply accumulate more of the same – that is, a failure to introduce robust science to underpin forensic evidence.
This, as the House of Lords reports, has not served well the application of the disciplines that make up forensic science or its pursuit of scientific robustness. The current research deficit in which forensic science finds itself, clearly highlights that “the same” is no longer acceptable and nor should it be. We need to embrace transparent practices and openly share advances for the benefit of the courts – the judges, magistrates, advocates, accused, defendants and jurors.
If we are to undertake the research that is needed by the forensic science ecosystem to properly serve justice, then we first have to identify the common perspectives of the challenges we face. We need to do this together, taking time to understand each other as an interdisciplinary community. We must be bold and brave, creating a new movement of research inventiveness that draws on all perspectives to energise a truly new culture of openness, trust, data sharing and knowledge creation. Justice and society demand no less.