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News Round-Up Week Ending 19.6.15

(Posted on 19/06/15)


Stephen Lawrence’s killers would go free today:

A BBC London investigation has highlighted the drain in forensic fibre expertise, suggesting that “Stephen Lawrence's killers might escape justice if their cold case were looked at today”.

Gary Dobson was convicted after a droplet of Mr Lawrence's blood was found on fibres from his coat. The number of forensic fibre experts in the UK has since fallen from 40 to six, as discussed in a recent series on BBC Radio 4 (see our previous article of 15/05/15: Forensics: Crisis, What Crisis?).

The BBC also stated that “the Met routinely uses laboratories that do not meet the ISO 17025 gold standard accreditation, leading forensic experts to warn about the potential for miscarriages of justice”.

"You need a body of expertise in the country available to do fibre work - we are at a skeleton crew level,” Tiernan Coyle, the forensic scientist who worked on both the Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor cases, told the BBC. "Any further loss would see the country lose its fibre expertise altogether. Our staffing levels are at dangerously low levels.

"Accreditation matters because it provides reassurance to the public and the criminal justice system that what you are doing is fit for purpose. We've got the potential for evidence to be presented from unaccredited laboratories which may be dubious and could lead to a miscarriage of justice."

Fellow forensic scientist Sue Pope warned of the lack of oversight of DNA samples in the current fragmented system:

"A person will have been charged on the basis of a DNA match, but at court the issues are not about whose DNA this is, but how it got there. The reaction is very often to drop the case.

"Perhaps a person who should have been convicted isn't. It's also possible a person who shouldn't have been convicted is."

The Home Office refuted these arguments.

"There is no evidence that Forensic Science Providers and police laboratories are not delivering at least the same level of service to the Criminal Justice Service as the FSS,” minister Damien Green said. "We monitor the market closely to make sure it remains competitive and it continues to provide forces with what they need."

What Sir Brian Did Next

“Sir Brian Leveson is best known for his report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press,” Joshua Rozenberg writes in the Guardian.  â€œBut there is another Leveson report that may turn out to be much more far-reaching. Published in January, it recommended ways of streamlining the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Given that there is less money available, both for legal aid and for running the courts, Leveson’s aim was to make the criminal justice system more efficient – to do more with less.”

One proposal is that in middle-ranking cases, currently heard by magistrates or in Crown Court, the defendant would lose the right to insist on trial by jury. Rather it would be for the court to decide the mode of trial.

“The public has a proper interest in the financial and human cost of the criminal justice system and how best to apply its limited resources,” Leveson writes. 

“Given that we must find ways of delivering justice more cheaply, allowing defendants in the crown court to opt for non-jury trial must surely merit further consideration,” concludes Mr Rozenberg.