Reforming the UK’s forensic science market

Effective, affordable and trusted forensic science is a core pillar of the UK’s criminal justice system (CJS). Whether it is fingerprint comparison, crime scene examination or the extraction of data from digital devices, forensic scientists, forensic police teams and commercial forensic science providers play a vital role. Moreover, with the exponential rise in digital crime innovative digital forensics also has a crucial role to play in delivering actionable evidence quicker. However, there are serious concerns about the ability of the sector to continue to deliver high-quality forensics for the CJS.

The UK currently operates a mixed-market model in forensic science, with commercial forensic science providers working alongside police forces. This followed the closure of the Government’s Forensic Science Service (FSS) in 2012. While the closure of the FSS was intended to cut costs, and successfully did so in many areas, the fact is that the UK’s forensic science market has been shrinking and there are increasing worries about its sustainability – the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy estimated that police spending on forensics dropped by 18% between 2009/10 and 2015/16. These concerns were underlined by the entry into administration of Key Forensic Services in January 2018.

The Home Office has now unveiled an implementation plan, following a joint review in 2018 by the Home Office, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, to reform the forensic science market. The review, and now the implementation plan, focuses on four recommendations: to ensure that quality standards set by the Forensic Science Regulator are adhered to; to ensure that the commercial models are sustainable; to ensure that the CJS benefits from innovation; and to ensure that policy makers have better data to support their decision making.

In October last year ADS contributed to an inquiry by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on forensic science, which is still ongoing. In that submission ADS noted that “the exponential growth in digital forensic evidence is posing a challenge to law enforcement and the CJS” and called for the Forensic Science Regulator’s role to be reviewed, considering the Government’s promise to deliver a ‘national approach to Forensic Science delivery’. With that mind, the Government’s support for giving the Regulator statutory powers of enforcement will be cautiously welcomed. Industry will also await with interest the forthcoming commercial strategy from the Forensics Capability Network, which will hopefully reverse the focus on cost at the expense of innovation in the market.