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16 Dec 2017

'Crisis of confidence' in the justice system due to Tory privatisation of forensics service

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04 Dec 2017
The government is in denial over the impact of the police investigations into a potentially major scandal concerning Randox and Trimega, two private providers of forensic service to the justice system. Ministers have attempted to downplay the impact of the scandal as well as it causes. They are very misguided to do so.

The cases have the capacity to generate thousands of case reviews and appeals because of alleged tampering with evidence. It has not been established, or at the least the government has not provided information, on whether other laboratories may be drawn into the scandal. Even as it stands, the scale of the problem could lead to a general crisis of confidence in the forensics part of the justice system, and therefore the system as a whole as the cases emerge.

Ministers seem to have adopted a lethargic approach. Yet over the next few weeks and months it is possible that a series of cases will come to appeal courts and convictions overturned as unsafe. Drink driving cases are already going to appeal because of the alleged manipulation of evidence.

The scandal may draw in serious criminal cases, including violent and sexual offences. It has already affected the family courts, which is where Randox operated. Forensic evidence is often used in these cases to establish alcohol or drug abuse, or otherwise.  Decisions for the family courts can lead to parents being granted or denied access to children, and will impact the possibility of a child being take into care. Both types of cases, criminal and family could hardly be more grave.

Randox, Trimega and others are the main providers of forensic services to the justice system after the Coalition decided to close the Forensics Science Service on grounds of costs. They were warned at that time that privatising such an important and sensitive part of the justice system could lead to severe problems, a loss of confidence and unforeseen yet substantial costs. Unfortunately, each of these warnings may be proved correct. Case reviews alone costs large sums of money, let alone retrials, appeals, litigation or compensation.

It is not clear whether there is any effective means to claw back these costs. Ministers want to accuse Labour of ‘politicising’ the forensics scandal around the issue of privatisation. But theirs was a political decision to privatise the forensics service in defiance of the warnings they received.  

In the public sector, a well-run forensics service will do ‘blind’ or ‘dummy’ testing and extensive quality control random sampling of results. All of this should be part of a stringent regulatory regime overseeing the private sector. We need to establish whether that has been the case in relation to the criminal courts. But, despite Ministerial assurances, no statutory regulatory regime exists at all for family court forensics’ services, as the regulator herself has pointed out.

As a minimum, that needs to end and proper regulation of forensics ervices be introduced in the family courts. As cases unfold, Ministers will need to provide much greater disclosure of the likely costs and delays, as well as the human costs involved. Once we have some idea of  the extent of these, Labour will be looking at renationalising forensic services.

* This was originally published at https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/home-affairs/justice-system/opinion/house-commons/91126/diane-abbott-mp-crisis-confidence

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