I believe that it is impossible to separate forensic science from the wider undermining of criminal justice funding that has occurred during 11 years of Conservative cuts. The Government have treated people’s innocence as an unaffordable and optional luxury, rather than the underpinning of the fabric of society’s trust in the justice system. When people realise that innocent people can go to jail and guilty people can go free because of failures in the system that the Government have allowed to happen, the whole system is doomed.
I was not a member of the Science and Technology Committee, but I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority for the 12 years of its existence from 2000 onwards. As soon as the idea of privatising the national Forensic Science Service was floated, I made a speech in which I said, “This is a mistake and it will cause all sorts of problems”. Well, I told you so—rather I told them so. I was very unhappy when it finally went ahead.
The worrying thing that underpins all this, across the forensic sector, committee and the Government, is the acceptance that miscarriages of justice have occurred as a result of the failures, changes and inconsistencies in the way that forensic science is conducted. That innocent people may have been found guilty and guilty people may have been found innocent should worry everyone in this country because it undermines the whole justice system and the rule of law. I am yet to see any serious reflection from the Government on the implications of this or any attempt to ensure that these injustices are remedied.
I will come back to this issue, and I would like the Minister to explain what conversations the Government have had with the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor to trawl through these past cases and ensure that any forensic errors are put right and that anyone wrongly convicted has their conviction overturned. This work should be conducted using government funds and should not be constrained by the availability of individuals’ funds or legal aid.
The Government’s response to the report, specifically on legal aid, sadly expresses that they are “not aware of legally aided defendants being denied access to forensic testing and expert advice for funding reasons.”
Will the Minister expand on the basis of that assertion? Is it founded on ignorance or have they gone out of their way to seek examples of legal aid limits getting in the way of justice? I ask this because some Peers had an email from a forensics organisation that mostly does legal aid criminal defence work. It says that, while the three main laboratories that work with the police have had significant increases in funding recently, there has not been a corresponding increase in funding for the defence. It says that it has tried to engage with the Government about legal aid funding, but to no avail, for example, on the arbitrary limit on travel time of four hours. This does not tally with the Government’s claim that people are being denied access to the forensic science that they need to prove their innocence.
To conclude, I believe that it is impossible to separate forensic science from the wider undermining of criminal justice funding that has occurred during 11 years of Conservative cuts. At the beginning, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said that somebody gave evidence that a national crisis brought us to this point, but it was not; political decisions by the Conservative Government made it clear that we would take this route. The Government have treated people’s innocence as an unaffordable and optional luxury, rather than the underpinning of the fabric of society’s trust in the justice system. When people realise that innocent people can go to jail and guilty people can go free because of failures in the system that the Government have allowed to happen, the whole system is doomed.
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