FSS closure could leave unsolved crimes in the cold

FSS closure could leave unsolved crimes in the cold

Future criminal cold case reviews could be put in jeopardy because plans to close the Forensic Science Service (FSS) have left question marks over key resources necessary to their successful conclusion.

In the month since the shock announcement that the Home Office plans to break-up and close down the FSS over the next 15 months, the union for FSS staff has said the lack of any further detail regarding the wind-down and transfer of assets to the police and the market, and the future of the 1,600 staff, is symptomatic of the inadequate and contradictory planning behind the decision.

Using just the example of cold cases reviews, Prospect says no information has been provided on the future of three key resources – FSS’ national and local archives; its specialist cold case scientists; and pioneering technology – on which the majority of successful case reviews depend.

Mike Clancy, Prospect Deputy General Secretary said: “FSS have assisted more than 38 police forces in their reviews of historic offences, and helped secure convictions in over 220 cases. But this would not have been possible without the service’s national and local archives.”

FSS’ national and local archives

These document the receipt of every case undertaken by the service since the 1940s and provide information on recent ‘cold’ matches – cases loaded to the National DNA Database many years ago that have recently resulted in a match.

They contain well over 1.5 million case files and even more ‘retained materials’, such as DNA extracts, microscope slides, fibre tapings, debris and occasional original exhibits.

Said Clancy: “As the police retain little paperwork or exhibits for anything other than certain homicides, they rely entirely on the archives to progress all cold case investigations. Yet we have no indication of what will become of these key resources.

“Who will deal with cold matches and how much will it cost? Fragment or destroy this system and potentially hundreds of ‘detectable’ cases could remain unsolved.”

Specialist cold case scientistse

Similarly the union warns that as the pioneer of every major advance in forensic technology the body of specialist cold case scientists within the service is unique. They have in-depth knowledge of both original examination techniques and the subsequent production of retained material, crucial in evaluating new forensic opportunities – as well as the labelling and continuity of materials.

“Without an understanding of the service’s historic examination procedures or the case notes which determine which samples are suitable for testing, other forensic providers could apply inappropriate techniques to retained materials, resulting in incorrect results or no result at all.

“Testing can be destructive, and crucial samples may be ‘used-up’ through unsuitable selection. Similarly, mistakes in understanding the labelling systems could lead to the ‘wrong’ materials being tested, raising the spectre of potential miscarriages of justice.”

Pioneering technology

Prospect argues that not only does FSS have a proven track record of cold case results that is unrivalled by any other provider, it continues to lead the world in pioneering new techniques.

It is on the cusp of introducing new DNA technology that will help to improve profiles obtained from inhibited, degraded or old samples. Work is already underway to identify retained samples that may benefit specifically from this new technology.

Clancy said: “We have to ask what will happen to these samples and to existing, new and proposed technologies when FSS is closed? And these fears relate purely to cold cases. They do not touch on the other concerns regarding the measures needed to guard against the improper use of DNA data for commercial purposes and how to ensure police impartiality or the stability of the UK forensics market.”

The union’s comments come days after Sir Alex Jeffreys, the geneticist who developed DNA fingerprinting techniques, highlighted his concerns in a letter to New Scientist magazine. In it he said the logic justifying the closure “remains opaque” and warned that the UK would be left without any focus for research and “no ability to conduct investigations beyond routine analyses provided by the private sector”.

Prospect will be raising these issues in its evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into the closure of FSS.

Notes to Editors

  • FSS has been the partner of choice for two large-scale Home Office sponsored projects – Operation Stealth and Operation Advance – and currently works with at least 14 police forces on large-scale longstanding projects to systematically and methodically review their undetected historic sexual offences.
  • The Association of Chief Police Officers requires all police forces to review their undetected murders every two years.
  • FSS cold case scientists have entire hands-on experience of techniques such as blood grouping and historic DNA profiling technologies such as multi and single locus probing, Human Leukocyte Antigen, Quad and SGM.
  • Research by the BBC's Freedom of Information team revealed that there are officially 1,143 unsolved killings on police records in the UK last year.