Legal: The appliance of forensic science

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At a global level, forensic science is facing crisis. Despite the TV dramas, the discipline is under-resourced, fragmented, inefficient and, in some cases, unregulated.

In some areas there is little or no scientific rigour attached to much of the research base which claims to underpin many of the conclusions presented as evidence to the courts.

As a result, there is considerable risk and enormous consequential economic and social impact embedded in potential miscarriages of justice.

Professor Fiona Raitt highlighted in her presentation to the recent Forensic Science Society “Expert evidence and the law”meeting held in Edinburgh, that Scotland’s courts are not uniquely protected or immune to such perils.

However, as a counterbalance, the Scottish higher education sector leads the UK in the development and dissemination of forensic science research.

This pole position is largely attributed to the activities of two small academic groups – the Centre for Forensic Science (CFS) at the University of Strathclyde and the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) at the University of Dundee.

The combined research activities led by Professors Niamh Nic Daéid (CFS) and Sue Black (CAHID) have helped Scotland become a leading producer of peer-reviewed publications in forensic science in Europe and leaders in the UK by a long way.

According to a web of knowledge literature search, they published 166 peer-reviewed research papers in forensic science since 2008, compared to a total of 75 from the combined research-active academic institutions in the field in England and Wales.

The research is operationally focused, addressing real world problems born out of current casework-related questions and brings a much needed scientific validity and rigour to many aspects of forensic science work, both in a “conventional” sense as well as in the development of innovative and novel analytical and identification methods.

As to the future, Profs Black and NicDaeid argue, a single public sector provider of Forensic Science services gives Scotland a leading edge in the provision of science to the criminal justice sector in comparison with its neighbours, particularly as the commercial nature of the forensic science market in England and Wales continues to spiral downwards. The restructuring of Scotland’s police forces and fire and rescue services into single organisations has the potential to deliver a consolidated public service of which those south of the Border will be envious.

The consequent period of developmental change such public sector restructuring facilitates presents a unique and tremendous opportunity for Scotland to develop a world leading “laboratory to courtroom” provision of core scientific services underpinned by a strong research base.

There is no appreciable leadership and little or no coordinated strategy in forensic science research in the UK. Consequently, and with appropriate careful investment, Profs Black and Nic Daéid believe the new changes within the Scottish public sector present a real opportunity for the academic researchers in Scotland to fill this role comprehensively. Public sector partners provide the seed bed for research questions and work in partnership with the academic community to facilitate the delivery of the solutions.

This could provide an attractive opportunity for future industrial and entrepreneurial engagement and investment coupled with EU funding leveraged through partnerships with other international bodies that would make a real difference, not only in Scotland, but through global networks.

By working together in partnership, the future may only be just about to start.