The privatisation of forensic science and miscarriages of justice

It is sometimes said that drawing a straight line between the privatisation of forensic science and an increased risk of miscarriages of justice is too simplistic. But the Forensic Science Regulator’s latest annual report, published today, provides a clear example of the risks inherent in relying on private companies to deliver forensic science services.

In the report, the Regulator discusses the impact of one such company, Key Forensic Services, going into administration. Despite two other companies helping to “minimise damage” by taking on additional forensic casework, according to the Regulator “there was insufficient capacity elsewhere for a range of types of casework, and each police force was subject to a cap on submissions”.

What this meant, says the Regulator, is that “some cases where forensic science may have provided valuable information or evidence could not be processed.” This is highly troubling: it suggests that testing which might have helped clear an innocent suspect, or inculpate a guilty one, was not done – for no other reason than a lack of capacity.

And it gets even worse. The Regulator goes on: “In addition, there was some evidence of an increased error rate during this period (although it is not possible to make a direct attribution of cause) as well as an unsustainable strain on staff working overtime.”


Of course, problems in forensic science cannot all be pinned on privatisation. There is the justice system’s general lack of funding, our courts’ poor understanding of science and statistics, the lack of scientific underpinning for several fields of forensics, and the difficulties accessing exhibits for post-conviction testing. But the episode outlined by the Regulator provides a clear example of the risks that have arisen due to the 2012 closure of the government-owned Forensic Science Service.

Through our wrongful conviction casework at the Centre for Criminal Appeals we see the human cost of forensic science failings first-hand. You need only read about the case of Lizzie Donoghue to understand the harm caused. 

In our view, forensic science plays too crucial a role in delivering justice for it to be left to the whims of the market. Whilst it will not solve everything, the standardisation of forensic science provision across the country would be a welcome step towards preventing miscarriages of justice. Failing that, the Government should consider re-establishing the Forensic Science Service. As with probation reform, privatisation has failed.