The government’s forensic regulator has called for fresh scrutiny of drug and alcohol testing carried out for the family courts, after a scandal at a Manchester laboratory raised doubts about the quality of evidence used in thousands of child protection proceedings.
Gillian Tully told the Guardian she had raised concerns about the lack of oversight of forensic companies working for the family courts with the policing minister, Nick Hurd, and in a letter to the chair of parliament’s science and technology select committee.
“This case does point to the fact that having regulation in the criminal system and not in the family court system is anomalous and that gap should be addressed,” Tully said. Her remit as regulator only covers forensics used by the criminal courts.
The Home Office announced this week that 10,000 criminal cases in England and Wales are being reviewed after it emerged that data at a laboratory run by Randox Testing may have been manipulated. The investigation then spread to encompass all child protection proceedings, dating back to 2010, in which drug and alcohol testing had been carried out by the same company.
The Randox investigation came to light in early 2017, when two individuals working at a Manchester laboratory were arrested. The Guardian understands the two men held senior roles at a predecessor company, called Trimega, which at one stage carried out about half of all hair-strand alcohol and drug tests ordered by the family courts.
Tully said that since regulation of forensic evidence used in the family and civil courts does not fall within her remit, it meant that “those cases wouldn’t have been reported to anyone”.
Concerns were raised in a series of open judgments, dating back to 2012, about errors in drug and alcohol results provided by Trimega to the family courts, in cases where substance abuse was a decisive factor in whether children could remain in the care of their parents.
Hurd said this week that all tests carried out by Trimega between 2010 and 2014 were being treated as “potentially unreliable” and that it may never be possible to trace back all the tests to customers due to poor record-keeping. But he added that he believed it was “unlikely that decisions about the welfare of children will have been taken solely on the basis of toxicology test results”.
Public judgments show that such tests can have a profound impact on care proceedings. In a 2012 case, in which Trimega gave flawed evidence, Mr Justice Jonathan Baker told the high court that two children would have gone into care had the sample not been checked by another laboratory.
He warned at the time: “Erroneous expert evidence may lead to the gravest miscarriage of justice imaginable – the wrongful removal of children from their families.”
While companies carrying out drug, alcohol and DNA tests for the family courts need to be accredited, this did not amount to oversight, Tully said. “[In the criminal sector] I am made aware if things are going wrong so I can start to see if there any trends, what’s going on where. Not having some sort of oversight would make it difficult to see where things are going wrong.”
Tully added that the alleged data manipulation at the Randox laboratory was “hugely disappointing”. “I was also actually really shocked that people working [at] a forensic science laboratory could possibly have been involved in something improper,” she said. “Anything of this nature is really shocking.”
She said no evidence was uncovered of more widespread problems in an audit that she had asked major centres to carry out.
Others said the case pointed to an erosion of quality since the closure of the government-run Forensic Science Service in 2012.
“The problem is that nobody really cares until something like this happens. That’s my very strong impression,” said Prof Peter Gill, one of Britain’s most distinguished forensic scientists. “This raises serious questions about ... forensic provision carried out by companies. It shows they can run dubious practice and get away with it for many years.”
Gill, who is a professor of forensics at Oslo University, added it was difficult to imagine the scandal having occurred under the Forensic Science Service, where scientists were routinely sent mock cases that were checked as a quality control. “When you get rid of that system the quality is quite difficult to maintain,” he said.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Our immediate priority is to work with the police to establish the full scale of this issue and the potential impact on the public.
“We have put processes in place to allow people to address any concerns they have over cases heard in the family courts, and will continue to consider what measures can be implemented to reduce the risk of similar problems in the future.”