The chairman of the criminal cases review commission has warned that public confidence in justice is in danger. Photograph: newsteam.co.uk
Miscarriages of justice will not be corrected and public confidence in the criminal justice system will be damaged if proposed changes to theforensic science service go ahead, according to Richard Foster, chairman of the criminal cases review commission.
He said the proposals would be “disastrous” to the work of the CCRC, and that any changes to the FSS could reduce the commission’s ability to act effectively. He also warned of “significant risks to the wider criminal justice system arising directly out of the decision to close the FSS”.
The government-owned FSS provides analysis and interpretation of evidence from crime scenes. It employs 1,600 people and analyses more than 120,000 cases each year. The government wants to wind down the service, transferring or selling off as many of its operations as possible to private companies, some of which may be based abroad.
The Commons science and technology committee has launched an inquiry into the closure. It will hear evidence on Wednesday and is expected to report in June.
Foster has told the Guardian of the effect the closure will have on CCRC investigations, which have extensive powers to obtain material held by public bodies, but no powers over private bodies.
“Since 2005, we have used FSS material over 150 times,” said Foster. “Without special arrangements, the impact its closure will have on our work will be nothing short of disastrous for those who may have been suffering a miscarriage of justice and for the wider criminal justice system. This will undoubtedly mean that cases which would otherwise have been referred back to the appeal courts will not be, and conversely cases which could be concluded quickly will take a great deal longer to conclude.”
There are a small number of alternative forensic providers but for many years the FSS has been the only provider of forensic services to the police and the vast majority of the forensic material the commission has needed has been from the FSS.
“We understand that some police forces have started to enter into contracts with providers other than the FSS for the provision of forensic services,” said Foster.
“This means that over the next few years it is likely that the commission will have to engage in negotiation with those alternative providers to ensure we can continue to have access to material.”
This is a problem, he said, because while “it is one thing to have a statutory right to obtain material, it is entirely another to have to negotiate for it”.
“We have no idea how fragmented the market might become,” he said. “We anticipate some of this work may move to overseas providers.
“However, as our powers do not extend to obtain material from private bodies or from abroad it will be impossible for the commission to do its job properly.”
Foster also warned that media and societal pressure can cause miscarriages of justice. Inappropriate press coverage, he said, even if published a long time before the trial, can influence police investigations, prejudice juries and affect expert witnesses. He also defended the commission’s recent provisional decision not to refer Jeremy Bamber’s case to the Court of Appeal for the third time.