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Future of forensics tsar in flux as Home Office fails to advertise for successor

The UK government is yet to advertise for a new Forensic Science Regulator, despite the current appointee’s term of office expiring next month, raising fears that it may be poised to phase out the role.

Though the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) is a little-known figure among the public as a whole, their role is vital for the proper functioning of the criminal justice system and prevention of miscarriages of justice.

The holder of the post is supposed to ensure all organisations providing police with forensic science services - including digital forensics covering communications data from smartphones, as well as DNA evidence and fingerprinting - observe stringent codes of practice.

Although the three-year term of appointment of the current FSR Dr Gillian Tully ends on 17 November, it has emerged that the government has not yet invited applications from potential successors. The Home Office insists it is “committed” to the role.

Tully is also yet to be handed statutory powers allowing her to compel providers to comply with quality standards, despite the government announcing last year that it would “develop proposals” allowing for this development to take place.

Mike Silverman, who served as the first FSR after the job was created in the mid-2000s under the then Labour government, said that in failing to advertise the post the Home Office had “either taken its eye off the ball yet again or they just don’t care enough”.

The government’s long-delayed Forensic Science Strategy, which was finally published last year, was “rubbish”, he added. He also pointed out that all other countries in which there are forensic science facilities had at least one state-owned provider in the marketplace.

Silverman told E&T: “To my mind, the one thing that makes the wholly privatised marketplace we have here allowable in our criminal justice system is if you have a regulator with teeth, which we don't have.” 

Insiders in the forensic science industry have previously warned that the abolition of the state-owned Forensic Science Service in 2012 and subsequent wholesale privatisation of the marketplace could lead to cost-cutting and unsafe convictions in future.

Fibre examination expert Tiernan Coyle questioned whether the role of FSR would even exist after mid-November.

He said: “This is a failure of the government. They say they have someone who can ensure standards are maintained across the forensic science sector, but they don’t.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As set out in our Forensic Science Strategy, we are committed to making the FSR a statutory role.

“We are working through the appointment arrangements with relevant parties and ensuing it is in line with the new Public Appointment Governance Code, which was published in 2016.”

In its Forensic Science Strategy, the Home Office stated that there was “no evidence to indicate that the reduction in spend means forensic science is making a less valuable contribution to criminal justice investigations.”

However, it found “more needs to be done to ensure appropriate compliance with quality standards to maintain public confidence and reduce potential miscarriages of justice.”

The strategy also set out plans to create a new digital forensics hub. 

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