Drug cases 'will fail' if forensic labs are cut

SUSPECTED drug offenders could escape prosecution because police budget cuts will lead to fewer forensic tests being carried out on evidence, a leading lawyer has warned.

• There are fears that limiting forensic tests could lead to mistakes in the criminal justice system Picture: TSPL

Scotland's police service is facing a cut of up to 25 per cent over four years and the Scottish Police Service Authority (SPSA) is already considering cutting the number of laboratories from four to just two.

Criminal defence solicitor Peter Lockhart believes there will be a reduction in the number of cases sent to the labs for reports as the scientists will only have time to devote to the most serious cases. If someone is caught in possession of drugs, police can carry out tests at the station to determine what the substance is but then have to send them to forensic labs for more rigorous analysis that will stand up in a court of law.

Lockhart, a member of the Law Society of Scotland's criminal law committee, said: "There's already a backlog of reports being done. If resources become more severe, cases at the lower end may not go for forensic reports - that would be a matter of concern for the public."

He added: "If they aren't tested, the Crown would say 'If we don't have the evidence, we won't continue with the case.'

"If there are cutbacks there will be decisions taken that a case is not one where we can allocate the expense. That may happen in possession cases, or low-level supply."

Iain Whyte, an SPSA board member and convener of the Lothian and Borders Police Board, also believes fewer tests will be carried out as the cutbacks take effect, which could lead to cases being dropped and miscarriages of justice.

He expects the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to direct what should be sent to laboratories depending on what the prosecutors think will be needed to secure a conviction.

He said: "The difficulty is that policing is going to go through a phase where it starts to look to save money in order to live within the budgets that are about to be set.

"Having just two forensic laboratories is a proposal that is going to save money, and already there has been some public outcry and resistance from politicians.

"There is a looming crisis here over expectation and what is possible. It might be that the Scottish justice system as a whole has to start looking at streamlining its process and concentrating on specific measures, whether they are forensic or detective, that secure convictions.

"That will be a decision for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service."

There are fears that limiting the tests could lead to mistakes in the criminal justice system such as the case of former detective Shirley McKie, who was falsely accused of leaving fingerprints at a murder scene in Kilmarnock in 1997.

Whyte said: "At the moment, police and forensic officers, when they arrive at the scene, make their own judgements. But when evidence is passed to the forensic labs they carry out further tests to gather as much information as possible.

"In future years, if budgets are tight, they may have to be more selective and concentrate on things which they know will secure a conviction."

That may have a knock-on effect on the public purse as other forensic tests are ordered by defence solicitors and paid for through legal aid.

Lockhart said: "If the position was that the Crown Office were effectively dictating which forensic tests are carried out - if they say we are looking for A, B and C, forget D, E and F - that clearly would be a matter of great concern.

"It may be that D, E or F might provide important evidence from the accused's point of view.

"And it's not necessarily going to be a sensible way of saving public money. As a defence agent I would have to arrange for a defence expert to look at the evidence. In 95 per cent of cases that would be publicly funded through legal aid."

Tom Nelson, director of forensic services at the SPSA, said: "We have been engaging over recent months with Scottish policing and the fiscal service on how best to organise and deliver forensic services for them - particularly around the need to improve the consistency of service around ‘so-called' low-level crimes.

"Clearly, as with all other areas of policing, SPSA faces significant reductions in funding and we are currently assessing what impact this might have on all our services. The SPSA board will meet shortly to discuss the views and feedback received during this summer's engagement on the options for modernisation, and to agree a recommended way forward to put to the Scottish Government."

He added: "As an organisation which spends public money, SPSA believes that we should be looking only to do the appropriate forensic tests necessary to support the police and the Crown.

"We should not be doing every test possible unless that is what is needed. If a full suite of tests is not required in one case then that can free up resources to get quicker results elsewhere."

A Crown Office spokeswoman said: "The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service will continue to work positively and closely with the Scottish Police Services Authority and other law enforcement agencies to ensure that the forensic service needs of the prosecution service continue to be met."

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