No. 36 of Session 2004-05 28 March 2005


Miscarriages of justice due to flawed treatment of expert evidence could be prevented by simple improvements to the criminal justice system, says the Science and Technology Committee in a Report released today, Tuesday 29 March 2005.

The Report, Forensic Science on Trial, which looks at the proposal to develop a Public Private Partnership (PPP) for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) and at how forensic science is used in courts, identifies several flaws in the court process and legal system which need to be addressed to help prevent future miscarriages of justice. The wide-ranging Report also looks at skills and training in the criminal justice system and research and development in forensic science.

In cases where expert witnesses have been discredited the lawyers and judges involved have tended to escape public criticism despite the fact that they should have been able to prevent the miscarriage of justice. While the number of miscarriages of justice associated with problems with expert evidence may be low, the MPs say they are very concerned at the lack of safeguards to prevent this happening. A Scientific Review Committee should be set up within the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and a Forum for Science and the Law established, to allow ongoing scrutiny of expert evidence and improve communication between the scientific and legal communities.

The Committee says it is “entirely unsatisfactory” that there is no agreed test or protocol for validating scientific evidence before it is presented in court. The MPs also say that it is complacent to regard the adversarial system as providing sufficient safeguards in cases that rely on scientific evidence. The Committee recommends several measures to improve the handling of expert evidence in court. For example:

-  Jury research should be allowed to provide an insight into how juries handle scientific evidence. The Committee suggests that the possibility of trials without juries should be considered in cases which rely on highly complex and technical forensic evidence.

 - The way statistical evidence is presented to juries must be reviewed, and the Bar and Judicial Studies Board should introduce compulsory minimum training and continuing professional development for judges and lawyers in forensic evidence. Similarly, expert witnesses themselves should receive general training in the legal process and presenting evidence to court.

The Committee believes that the Home Office handled the proposal to develop a Public Private Partnership for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) badly, creating unnecessary uncertainty over its future among staff.  The MPs say the FSS Government Owned Company (GovCo) must not be set up to fail - the merits of the GovCo model must be fully tested before progression to PPP can be considered. Government must also put in place measures to ensure that the full range of forensic services are provided at the required standard and at affordable prices. It should establish a Forensic Science Advisory Council to regulate the forensic sciences market and provide a much needed oversight function to the way forensic science is used in criminal justice.

The MPs are also concerned that the Home Office has failed to establish an independent body to oversee the work of the National DNA Database or to give proper ethical consideration to decisions about the use of the data in the Database. The Committee calls for the Government to commit to setting up an independent body with ethical and lay input to oversee the management of the Database and use of the data.

Chair of the Committee Dr Ian Gibson MP said "The courts need to get their act together. When scientists have to deal with legal issues, they get help from lawyers, but lawyers and judges seem to be happy to handle scientific evidence themselves. There need to be much clearer lines of communication between the legal and scientific professions and scientists must be given a proper chance to feed their opinions into our court system. We have already seen the tragic consequences that can arise when expert evidence is not dealt with properly. Action needs to be taken now to make sure that miscarriages of justice like that can’t happen again."

Paper copies of the Report will be available for collection from 7 Millbank, entrance via Dean Stanley Street, from 10.00am on the day of publication. Copies of the Report can also be obtained from TSO outlets and from the Parliamentary Bookshop, 12 Bridge Street, Parliament Square, London SW1A 2JX (020 7219 3890) by quoting HC 96-I from the day of publication. The text of the Report will also be available via the Committee’s internet homepage:

  For further information please call Jessica Bridges Palmer, Media Officer for Select Committees, on 020 7219 8447. Previous press notices and publications are available on our website.

Notes for Editors

• Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Committee is empowered to examine the “expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies. The Committee was appointed on 12 November 2001.

• The Committee announced this inquiry on 21 July 2004 in press notice No 64 of Session 2003-04.

• The Committee took evidence from the Home Office and the Forensic Science Service on 15 December 2004; the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners, Forensic Science Society, Forensic Alliance, LGC, Prospect and PCS on 12 January 2005; Association of Chief Police Officers and academics on the 26 January; Crown Prosecution Service, Bar Council and a Crown Court Judge on 31 January; and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Reducing Organised and International Crime, Anti-drugs Co-Ordination and International and European Unit, Home Office, on 9 February.

• Membership of the Committee

Dr Ian Gibson (Lab, Norwich North) (Chairman)
Mr Tony McWalter (Lab, Hemel Hempstead)
Paul Farrelly (Lab, Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Dr Andrew Murrison (Con, Westbury)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Geraldine Smith (Lab, Morecambe and Lunesdale)
Kate Hoey (Lab, Vauxhall)
Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)
Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East)
Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)
Mr Robert Key (Con, Salisbury)