Standards of forensic science under threat

Mick Gradwell
Mick Gradwell
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Last week, the top 250 senior investigating officers in the UK gathered for their annual conference in Leeds.

I also attended but on this occasion it was in a forensic consultancy role and I spent a lot of time talking to various experts about the recent developments within the UK’s forensic science industry.

However, first of all I would like to congratulate Lancashire Police’s detective chief inspector Mark Rothwell who was presented with the National SIO of the year award at the conference, for leading the successful re-investigation into the murder of Paige Chivers. It’s a very prestigious award and shows, yet again, how highly regarded Lancashire Police is nationally.

The main difficulty I have in writing about forensic developments in the UK is that there are very few due to the government closing down the Forensic Science Service several years ago and forensic work is now conducted in-house by forces or by private firms.

There are very few scientists who have the time or budget to conduct research or develop new innovative forensic processes. This is in stark contrast to the time of the FSS, when the UK was regarded as a world leader in this area. The one area the UK appears to be seeing progress is in digital technology and the outstanding product of the moment, as far as I’m concerned, is the digital autopsy machine. As someone who has spent far too many hours watching pathologists conduct invasive post mortems, this machine is a God send. On most sudden deaths, including a homicide, the machine can establish a cause of death quickly and without the need of a scalpel.

The current requirement for so many invasive post mortems simply adds to the pain of bereaved families and often delays funerals. Although the initial cost of these machines would be considerable, the money could be recouped over years, as they replaced the need for an estimated 140,000 post mortems each year. They are currently being used with great success in the Midlands and I hope other areas follow suit.Overall, the UK has a fairly bleak forensic outlook.

There are concerns standards are dropping and fewer exhibits are being submitted for testing. It’s an unsurprising situation in light of the financial cuts, but nevertheless a sad situation that groundbreaking ‘white coat’ forensic processes are no longer being developed in the UK.