New parliamentary inquiry launched into forensics over concerns over wrongful convictions

A parliamentary investigation has been launched into quality concerns over forensic science leading to wrongful convictions. The immediate past regulator Dr Gillian Tully last year described the sector as ‘lurching from crisis to crisis’ highlighting concerns about miscarriages of justice and today the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice (APPG) announces an new inquiry co-chaired by the leading experts Baroness Sue Black and Professor Angela Gallop.

The Westminster Commission on Forensic Science will be taking evidence over the next 18 months and seeking submissions from forensic scientists, academics, lawyers and police investigators as well as victims of miscarriage of justice and their representatives.

‘Sometimes we need to be reminded that “science” is the most important word in forensic science,’ commented Baroness Black, a forensic anthropologist with extensive experience in war crimes investigations, mass fatality events and complex casework.  ‘Robust and appropriate science requires constant testing and retesting, it needs research funding to develop and it relies heavily on practitioners who must be highly skilled, experienced and well trained.  If science is to be used effectively and appropriately to support a fair and just investigative process, then there can be no tolerance for shoddy science or scientists.’

  • This work follows last year’s APPG report into the Criminal Cases Review Commission, co-chaired by two members of the APPGMJ Baroness Stern and Lord Garnier QC. The  Law Commission has taken on board one of its key recommendations and started a review of criminal appeals. Earlier this month Barry Sheerman MP and Sir Bob Neill, co-chairs of the APPG, with Andy Slaughter MP met with the Law Commission.
  • The APPG is restructuring the way it runs and will be conducting its next phase of work under the Future Justice Project supported by Glyn Maddocks KC (hon) and Justice Gap editor Jon Robins as special advisers. The work will be organised into five committees: science and the courts (including the Westminster Commission on Forensic Science); media; legal policy; legal profession; and criminal appeals. More details will follow.
  • Below Barry Sheerman introducing a ten minute rule bill on joint enterprise to correct a law that has been ‘wrong for 30 years’.

It has been ten years since the Forensic Science Service was closed. At the time there were widespread concerns that the reasons for its closure, which had also started to affect other suppliers of forensic services, would lead to wrongful convictions. For example, a New Scientist (2012) survey, conducted immediately before the closure, reported that 76% of forensic scientists predicted an increase of miscarriages of justice. They identified as concerns pressure to produce results, insufficient time to evaluate cases, and reduced impartiality.

‘Forensic science has now become so powerful that you don’t need to be able to see a trace of potentially relevant material to get a result from it,’  Prof Gallop explained. ‘This means that it is increasingly important to ensure that the right tests are applied by properly trained scientists to the right items, and the results are carefully interpreted in the context of the specific case at hand. If any of this doesn’t happen, then forensic science will not only fail to prevent miscarriages of justice but is likely actively to contribute to them. Along with many other forensic scientists I am sure this is happening already.’

Prof Gallop has been a practising forensic scientist for nearly 50 years and worked on the UK’s most complex criminal cases including the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Rachel Nickell, and manslaughter of Damilola Taylor. She added that the new Westminster Commission would therefore explore all aspects of forensic science and its role in the criminal justice system and ‘identify imaginative, timely, and cost-effective ways of avoiding the serious risks to fairness and justice currently associated with its use’.

The immediate past forensic science regulator, Professor Gillian Tully, in her final report last year, described her six years’ tenure as ‘fraught with financial, reputational and capacity problems’. Speaking to Channel Four News earlier this year, she warned of the absence of accreditation leading to miscarriages of justice. ‘When it comes to the interpretation of CCTV images it is difficult for us to have the assurance that it is done properly across the board. As far as I am aware none of the organisations or carrying out the interpretation of the images has achieved the quality standards set by the forensics science regulator,’ Prof Tully told Channel Four.

Barry Sheerman has said that ‘our reputation as the global gold standard for forensic sciences’ had been’ badly tarnished over the last decade’. ‘Today we launch an investigation into the state of the sector and we do that as a result of our concern that the innocent are being wrongly convicted,’ he added.  The Westminster Commission on Forensic Science will ‘shine a light on the sector and how its ‘products’ are used, and make recommendations to drive up quality and reliability in this important but overlooked corner of the justice system’.

‘Over the last five years since we started our work, we have heard from lawyers specialising in criminal appeals as well as families about their concerns about the role of forensics leading to wrongful convictions and enabling the real criminals to escape scot-free,’ said  Sir Bob Neill MP. ‘We have also noted with increasing alarm the consistent warnings both from forensic scientists themselves and the Forensic Science Regulator which have gone unheeded. At the heart of many of the notorious miscarriage of justice scandals in the past – from the Irish cases, such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, to Barry George and Shaun Hodgson – is the issue of forensics. The misapplication of forensic science can and often has resulted in the wrongful conviction for many years of the innocent. But pioneering forensic approaches can lead to wrongful convictions being overturned and justice restored.’

The Westminster Commission on Forensic Science

  • Professor Dame Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist with extensive experience in war crimes investigations, mass fatality events and complex casework. She is currently the President of St. John’s College, Oxford and a cross-bench peer.
  • Professor Carole McCartney is Professor of law and criminal justice at Leicester Law School. Carole has been researching issues around criminal evidence and forensic science for over 20 years, and has written on miscarriages of justice, international policing cooperation, DNA and biometrics, forensic science and criminal justice more widely. 
  • Steve Wilkins is a former detective chief superintendent and member of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ homicide and kidnap and extortion working groups. A specialist in covert intelligence, he was head of intelligence for the UK in relation to serious and organised crime. His investigation of The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path Murders, combining cutting edge forensics and modern investigation techniques, is regarded as the blueprint for murder investigations. 
  • Katy Thorne KC is a criminal and inquest barrister practising from Doughty Street Chambers.  She has a long-standing specialism in expert evidence and is an editor of Mason’s Forensic Medicine for Lawyers. She has lectured on the use of expert evidence in the criminal courts and trained the National Crime Agency on providing expert evidence.  
  • Professor Angela Gallop has been a practising forensic scientist for nearly 50 years. She is known for setting up and running full-scale forensic science laboratories as well as leading the scientific teams that have provided evidence in many of the UK’s most complex criminal cases including the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Rachel Nickell, and manslaughter of Damilola Taylor. She also has a long-standing association with the oldest academic centre for forensic science at the University of Strathclyde.
  • Dr Philip Avenell is a forensic scientist. Trained as a forensic biologist and DNA expert, Philip has extensive casework and casework management experience. He has worked in both public and private practice, led forensic research and development programmes, and implemented and developed quality standards in operational forensic laboratories.
  • Neil Denison originally trained as a fingerprint expert and is currently director of Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Scientific Support Services responsible for crime scene investigation, fingerprint and footwear comparison, forensic collision investigation and digital forensics capabilities. As a recognised leader in forensics, he sits on several national and international forensics boards and committees.