» Accreditation and Forensic Science

25 September, 2019

It is almost impossible these days to flip through the TV channels without seeing dramas or true-crime documentaries that feature forensic science in some way.  So as forensic science becomes more familiar and accessible to everyone, how is it possible to identify competent practitioners.  Forensic science itself has undergone significant challenges in the last few years. Since first coming to prominence in 18th Century Europe, forensic science has been an integral part of criminal justice systems (CJS) throughout the world.  The disbanding of the UK’s Forensic Science Service in 2012, several years of budget constraints, along with recent high profile cases has put the UK’s forensic science industry firmly in the spotlight.  All aspects of forensic science are being closely scrutinised; from its ability to keep pace with advances in science and technology, as well as the quality, accuracy and interpretation of the evidence presented.  Forensic service providers (FSPs) are also under review; from reported struggles to cope with a rapidly growing demand, to questions over data security.

Failings within the system have the potential to lead to a miscarriage of justice, whether that’s an innocent person being wrongfully convicted, or a victim being denied justice through evidence being overlooked.  Whilst no system of oversight can mitigate deliberate misconduct, accreditation is able to highlight instances of non-compliance with the competence and impartiality requirements of the relevant standards.  Forensics requires expertise in scientific processes and accreditation requires organisations to demonstrate that methodologies are valid and that technically competent individuals are involved throughout.  The Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) is responsible for both establishing and enforcing the scientific quality regime for forensic evidence used in the Criminal Justice System (CJS).  UKAS accreditation is a central part of the FSR’s quality framework and supports the (CJS) through the accreditation of forensics testing laboratories, scene of crime investigation and proficiency testing schemes.

Following May 2019’s report of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s review on Forensic Science, UKAS welcomes the recommendation that accreditation should continue to support an enhanced role for the FSR.  In its response to the report, the Government has prioritised enshrining the FSR’s powers into statute.  The FSR has long advocated the use of accreditation for ensuring confidence in the CJS, but it is not yet mandatory for all FSPs submitting evidence into the CJS to be UKAS accredited.  However, the FSR has already specified a timetable for laboratories to be accredited (on a discipline by discipline basis) and warned FSP’s that “Those not moving towards compliance should be in no doubt that their services will gradually receive fewer commissions and their practitioners will face more challenges in court.”

The Committee’s report emphasises the many benefits that many FSPs realise the positive benefits and impact that accreditation has on ensuring confidence in the quality of the services they provide.  However, it also highlights certain areas where there are potential financial and capacity issues.  Whilst the quality and integrity of evidence must remain the key consideration, UKAS is working with the FSR and Chartered Society for Forensic Science to develop a model that could provide a more cost-effective solution for the accreditation of very small providers.  Part of this involves considering alternative assessment processes that are appropriate for these services, whilst ensuring that quality is maintained and that there is a level playing field when it comes to determining competence.

UKAS has been accrediting organisations that capture and preserve data from digital devices since 2008.  Today’s mobile phones are more akin to pocket computers, leading to criminal activities becoming more technologically complex.  Simultaneously, digital recording devices such as camera phones, dash cams and CCTV have become both more prolific and better quality, leading to an increase in the amount of digital evidence available.  This inevitably raises questions over the appropriateness of the standards used to accredit FSPs.  As submitted during evidence to the Committee, UKAS considers ISO/IEC 17025 is a wholly appropriate standard to use for a digital forensics services provider, as their competence is evaluated against the criteria using appropriate guidance in the FSR Codes and by a competent technical peer assessor.  However, UKAS will continue to work closely with the FSR and other stakeholders to monitor the development of any new standards that may prove to be useful in the application of the international standards that are used for accreditation.

Outside of the digital forensics field, UKAS is also in the process of establishing a pilot project to accredit Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) to a combination of existing medical laboratory standards and the FSR’s codes of practice.  The initial scope of the project will focus on the taking of forensic medical samples, maintenance of a continuity chain and the avoidance of contamination.  In addition to ensuring the best outcome for evidence protection, high standards in forensic evidence generates confidence that justice is being delivered, which has considerable benefits for the health and well-being of both patients and the wider community.

Accreditation is a solution that creates a level playing field.  It can encompass providers large and small, providing an equal opportunity for all to demonstrate their competence and ability to meet the required standard.  Its processes and principles can also be applied to other emerging areas of forensic science and UKAS welcomes dialogue with any key stakeholders to help develop the standards and assessment process that ensure quality and confidence in the criminal justice system.