BRITISH ACADEMY OF FORENSIC SCIENCES RESPONSE TO HOME OFFICE CONSULTATION DOCUMENT
There appears to be agreement between the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Home Office and politicians that there is a need for an overall regulatory body for forensic science, particularly in respect of organizations, rather than of individual practitioners.
The ultimate test of any forensic science service is that the results of its investigations are accepted as evidence that stands up to cross examination in court. If the evidence is found at this point to be flawed, public money is wasted. Standards therefore need to be set that will assure all users that the forensic science service they receive is satisfactory, before the results enter court.
In our opinion, the measures currently proposed by the Home Office to set up a new regulatory body would mean reinventing what is already working well, rather than building on what is already there and extending and consolidating its effectiveness. The proposals would be too costly, take too long to develop, and would waste the valuable practical experience that has already been gained by organizations in the field.
As a single individual, one Regulator will not be equipped with the breadth of expertise to accredit all relevant specialities and subspecialities. For this purpose, a body of experts, headed by the Regulator, is needed, with roles, responsibilities and terms of reference clearly defined.
The Council for Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) already assesses and accredits the competence of individuals in most forensic science disciplines to give expert evidence in court. Although there are currently some specialist gaps, the CRFP seeks to fill these over time (see http://www.crfp.org.uk/specialties/).
The CRFP was set up in 1999, specifically in response to a number of high profile miscarriages of justice caused by unreliable scientific evidence, and has helped address relevant issues of public confidence. Many scientists in police and Home Office employment are already registered, and their credentials can be checked prior to any court hearings. Procedures for assessing and revalidating individual practitioners are well established, and make it possible for poor providers to be identified and deregistered.
Many other practitioners are already satisfactorily regulated by their professional bodies. Is the plan to have an over-arching regulator for all, or only for the professional forensic disciplines that do not yet have their own internal professional regulation?
The regulation of individuals should be complemented by the rigorous and robust inspection and accreditation of laboratories, organizations, processes and products. An extended CRFP could provide an inspection team for each speciality, made up of accredited individuals with the relevant qualifications and expertise.
A model for the inspection and accreditation of laboratories and processes already exists in the approach of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to the inspection of fertility clinics and services (see: http://www.hfea.gov.uk/cps/rde/xchg/SID-3F57D79B-FAEE7BF4/hfea/hs.xsl/1181.html).
The HFEA is already actively monitoring and regulating a growing and increasingly competitive market in fertility services to ensure that standards are maintained. A similar approach could be applied, for example, to the National DNA Database, using expertise from within the Human Contact Traces section of the CRFP.
Funding the new body
Any Regulator who is to command professional respect must be independent and not have to rely directly on government funding. Initially, however, Home Office funding would be needed to establish an enhanced CRFP. At a later stage laboratories and businesses seeking to become or remain accredited would pay for their inspections, just as individuals applying to join or remain on the CRFP register do now. Other bodies, such as the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS), may already provide appropriate accreditation and could perhaps apply for joint recognition with the new body where appropriate.
Responsibility for forensic science services should ultimately lie with the Home Secretary, but for administrative purposes should be delegated to the chairman of the new body – perhaps an expanded CRFP renamed as the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners and Services. It is essential that the body should remain independent, and not located within a government department. It would be preferable for the chairman to be a criminal law barrister with suitable knowledge and experience of forensic science evidence use in the courts. Day to day operation would be the responsibility of specialists, like those already working within the CRFP, answerable to the chairman.
Responses to the consultation questions
- Is there a need for a forensic science quality Regulator?
There is a need for a Regulator but the role of the Regulator needs to be more carefully defined.
- Should this Regulator be a named individual?
Whether a barrister/QC in criminal law, or a person coming from some other background, the Regulator must be someone of sufficient stature to command the respect of the whole range of individuals and bodies with whom s/he will have to deal. The Regulator must also be able to demonstrate independence. .
No one individual can possess the breadth of expertise necessary to oversee the whole range of specialities within forensic science, so the Regulator should be the Chairman of the proposed body, and its ‘public face’ when necessary.
- Should the Regulator be appointed and with powers delegated by the Home Secretary?
We agree with this suggestion but, however appointed, they must be independent and seen to be such.
- Should the Regulator be located within the Home Office and guided by a Forensic Science Advisory Council?
This, and the previous proposal, combined in paragraph 23 of the document as “ … with powers delegated by the Home Secretary” and “located in a government department, reporting to the Chief Scientific Advisor” raises fundamental questions about the independence of the Regulator. There would be no confidence in a body that is not seen to be independent of the Home Office.
The same proposal would give rise to confusion about lines of accountability, since, while the Home Secretary would have ultimate responsibility, the Chief Scientific Advisor is located in the Cabinet Office, not the Home Office.
We recognize, however, the importance of regular contact between the regulatory body and the Home Office.
- Who should be the members of the Forensic Science Advisory Council?
Bodies that have regulatory roles, such as the Royal Colleges, the CRFP and quality assurance bodies, such as UKAS, should have representation on the proposed Council. Other representation could be sought from all the specialties and disciplines embraced by the term ‘forensic science’.
- Do you agree that the Regulator should be funded initially by the Home Office, but that other funding models should be evaluated once the Regulator has been established?
Yes we agree.
- Do you agree with the scope and accountability of the regulatory function as described in this document?
This was the area that we were least happy about, and needed amplification and clarity.
- Do you agree that the Regulator should have oversight of existing and new regulatory arrangements to determine that appropriate standards are being set and enforced?
It depends on the meaning in this context of ‘oversight’. The new body, as proposed, cannot set standards: the professional associations are already doing that. They will know more about what is possible or practicable and will be well advanced in looking at new areas. Some of us also question the need for an overarching Regulator, especially for professions that are already well regulated. It is possible, however, that a Regulator’s overview could recognize and take into account the existing functions of other regulatory bodies, including the enforcement of quality standards.
- Should the Regulator’s role include regulatory oversight of forensic services undertaken by the police service?
If there is to be regulatory oversight it must cover all forensic science services, whether police or otherwise. It must be expected that all forensic science professionals will be scrutinized in the same way.