Forensic services 'relatively poor'
Forensic services in Northern Ireland are being undermined by backlogs and delays in producing reports for courts, inspectors have found.
While the standards of scientific analysis and quality of reporting within Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) was good, the time it took to complete the process was a cause for concern, the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) said.
Last year, justice minister David Ford was forced to defend the performance of forensic services after High Court judge Mr Justice Weir heavily criticised delays in providing reports for use in criminal proceedings.
The FSNI labs had a good turn-around record when it came to high priority cases, such as terrorist incidents, but inspectors said performance was "relatively poor" when it came to lower priority "volume crime" investigations, such as burglaries.
FSNI is an agency within the Department of Justice and is Northern Ireland's sole public sector provider of forensic sciences.
While the PSNI has its own in-house forensic branch that focuses primarily on crime scene work, it relies on the FSNI for the majority of its subsequent laboratory analysis.
The PSNI only seeks the services of labs elsewhere in the UK, or abroad, if the type of testing it requires is not provided at the FSNI.
Each year, FSNI produces around 9,000 reports relating to 6,000 cases based on the analysis of about 20,000 exhibits.
A previous CJI inspection in 2009 flagged up a raft of issues of concern, including the need to improve timeliness of reports.
The latest inspection found progress had been made but "considerable work" was still required.
It said improvements would only come with "fundamental changes" to how forensic services in general in Northern Ireland were delivered.
Inspectors said funding arrangements should be looked at, with potentially the Department of Justice assuming the role of central funder rather than the FSNI being paid separately by a number of public organisations, such as the PSNI, Public Prosecution Service or Police Ombudsman's Office.
The CJI found there was a "mismatch" between the projected demands from customers for services and the actual availability and capacity of lab time in FSNI.
The Department of Justice was investing £15 million in new laboratory space at the FSNI's headquarters in Carrickfergus - facilities that would focus on cutting-edge DNA analysis.
Inspectors said this development could produce tangible improvements in outputs, but cautioned that was not inevitable.
"It has the potential to deliver added benefits in terms of volume and timeliness of casework," the CJI report stated.
"But there is also a risk that this investment will not deliver the projected improvements due to inadequate planning, continued delays in the implementation of a new management information system (called Perseus) and resistance to change among some staff."
CJI deputy chief Inspector James Corrigan said there was a need for forensic services in Northern Ireland to be managed in a more joined-up way within the criminal justice system.
"This inspection found the quality of the scientific analysis and reporting being provided by FSNI was good," he said.
"The organisation has successfully retained external accreditation for its services from UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service) and criminal justice system customers of FSNI were also satisfied with the standard of advice and reports being provided.
"These positive developments along with the commitment of £15 million by the Department of Justice to fund new laboratory accommodation are however being undermined by backlogs and delays in the production of reports that are occurring as FSNI struggles to meet demand for its services.
"To deal with this issue, inspectors have recommended the development of a strategy to support the provision of a seamless service which addresses the funding and delivery of forensic services from crime scene to court.
"The strategy would require the input of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and FSNI as the key providers of forensic services and should be directly linked to the requirements of prosecutors and the needs of the courts."
The deputy chief inspector said the police and FSNI should work together to better manage the demand for forensic science expertise and improve productivity within the laboratory.
"Inspectors welcome the steps that have been taken to date within FSNI to improve efficiency and the 20% increase in capacity already achieved in relation to some drugs analysis and exhibits submitted by the State Pathologist's Department," he added.
"This level of increased productivity needs to be urgently replicated within other specialisms operating within the organisation in order to reduce avoidable delay and minimise criticism that has recently been raised in court.
"We would also support FSNI's efforts to make better use of staff overtime by using it in a targeted manner to address backlogs and spikes in demand for forensic science and maximise value for money."
Responding to the report, Mr Ford said: "An Action Plan has been developed to address the issues identified by the inspectors and progress will be monitored closely.
"In particular, work is ongoing to develop a forensic services strategy that will support the delivery of good quality, timely, cost-effective and sustainable forensic services.
"The agency is also in the process of implementing several initiatives under its Transformation Programme.
"This includes a new case management system and laboratory information management system and new DNA technology (DNA 17) which was launched in December.
"An essential part of the Transformation Programme is the capital investment I have made which will deliver a new laboratory at FSNI, which when complete will meet the highest of European standards.
"This investment will go some way in helping FSNI to respond to the ever changing demands of forensic science."