04 June 13
Key Forensic Response to MOJ Proposal to Cut Legal Aid
Key Forensic Services (KFS) is an established, ISO17025 accredited forensic service provider. We work with criminal defence solicitors and barristers and undertake civil and commercial work.
We also work under contract to all the major police forces of England and Wales, plus other UK law enforcement agencies such as British Transport Police and HM Revenue and Customs.
Through our international division, we support overseas commercial organisations, governments and police forces, assisting them with establishing or expanding forensic resources, helping eliminate casework backlogs and providing training of scientific and investigative staff.
Our wide range of forensic services include: Human Identification and relationship testing using DNA profiling, Chemical Analysis, Drugs, Digital Forensics, Fibres, Firearms, Fire Investigation, Glass, Gunshot Residue Analysis, Paint & Other Particulates, Physical Fits and Questioned Documents.
These services are underpinned by a significant Research and Development programme and we have strong partnerships with industry and academia.
We are concerned primarily by the decision to reduce expert fees in legal aid work by a further 20%. This is significantly lower than experts can expect to be paid in other areas and will lead to more experts opting out of undertaking legal aid work as some have already done. The strength of an adversarial system is that the evidence presented by the prosecution can be tested by the defence; as regards forensic work this depends on there being well qualified and experienced experts capable of undertaking such work. Part of the work of the defence expert can be to explain the prosecution findings to the defence and, if done properly, can in cases mean guilty pleas are entered saving court time and costs.
The Standards for Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts Consultation Paper sets out a list of standards that it hopes will be adopted by all expert witnesses. These include:
• The expert has been active in the area of work or practice, (as a practitioner or academic and subject to peer appraisal), has sufficient experience of the issues relevant to the instant case, and is familiar with the breadth of current practice or opinion.
• The expert is up-to-date with Continuing Professional Development appropriate to their discipline and expertise, and is in continued engagement with accepted supervisory mechanisms relevant to their practice.
• If the expert’s area of professional practice is not subject to statutory registration the expert would be expected to demonstrate appropriate qualifications and/ or registration with a relevant professional body on a case by case basis. Registering bodies usually provide a code of conduct and professional standards. If the expertise is academic in nature (e.g. regarding evidence of cultural influences) then no statutory registration is required (even if this includes direct contact or interviews with individuals) but consideration should be given to appropriate professional accountability.
• The expert is compliant with any necessary safeguarding requirements, information security expectations, and carries professional indemnity.
• The expert has undertaken appropriate training, updating or quality assurance activity relevant to the role of expert within the last year.
• The expert has a working knowledge of, and complies with, the requirements of Practice Directions relevant to providing reports for and giving. This includes compliance with the requirement to identify where their opinion on the instant case lies in relation to other accepted mainstream views and the overall spectrum of opinion in the UK.
The policy objective is to ensure experts providing evidence to the family courts in proceedings relating to children have a level of qualifications, skills and experience consistent with the provision of good quality advice to the court. The impact assessment states that “Weaknesses in expert evidence can increase delays and costs and represent poor value for money.” We agree with all the necessary requirements and the rationale behind them. Furthermore these requirements mirror to a large extent the requirements set out in much greater detail by the Forensic Regulator in his Codes of Practice and Conduct for forensic science providers and practitioners in the Criminal Justice System (Version 1 December 2011).
Our concern is that if the proposed cuts are implemented then many of the experts who are prepared to work for the reduced rates will be those that least adhere to these standards. Most of the requirements are, of themselves, not self funding and therefore require a level of remuneration that allows these ancillary requirements to be undertaken. Undertaking research, complying with international standards, reading papers, having quality assurance methods and procedures, undertaking peer review, using and updating equipment all combine to provide confidence in an expert witness. It is a false economy simply to find the cheapest expert who may not have the necessary professional knowledge and experience, and the skills to apply these efficiently and effectively to the case. Furthermore less qualified defence experts can lead to possible miscarriages of justice.