Stronger collaborative working needed across forensic services in NI

Collaborative working needs to be strengthened to realise the delivery of world-class forensic services in Northern Ireland, an inspection has found.

Feb 29, 2024
By Paul Jacques

The report from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) highlights the need for more fully integrated and unified service delivery projects, from crime scene to court, that demonstrate high quality, timely and value for money benefits to the criminal justice system.

It says a new funding model will be needed to strengthen collaborative working between Forensic Science Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Department of Justice.

“Quality forensic services are the cornerstone of an effective criminal justice system; supporting decisions to prosecute and the administration of justice in the criminal courts; it can be the difference between justice being served or not,” said the Chief Inspector of CJI Jacqui Durkin.

The inspection report published on Thursday (February 29) unpacks some of the “urban myths” surrounding forensic services.

It explains how some delays and duplication have been reduced and how services can be better delivered to fulfil the intention and ambitions of the Forensic Service Strategy for Northern Ireland.

“Forensic services have become an integral part of the criminal justice system with an increasing number of criminal cases dependent on how scientific evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA, footprints, alcohol, toxicology, firearms and digital electronics have been retrieved, analysed and reported to the courts,” said the Deputy Chief Inspector of CJI James Corrigan, who led the inspection.

“The current funding model may not be the optimal one for efficient governance, accounting and delivery. A new funding model to facilitate the delivery of a more unified service should be commenced within a year of this report.

“The public expenditure on forensic services was £34 million in 2022/23 with additional resources allocated to legal aid and further capital spending commitments for new forensic laboratory and office accommodation.

“A project implemented to measure and demonstrate the value of these investments should be completed.”

The report welcomed the joint governance arrangements of a Forensic Services Programme Board, which includes core membership from Forensic Science Northern Ireland, the PSNI and the Department of Justice, along with key stakeholders such as the Public Prosecution Service. However, it called for a stronger focus on delivering the priorities as set out in the Northern Ireland Forensic Services Strategy 2021-26.

“Forensic services practitioners, together with investigators and prosecutors, should expect a joint plan which maximises opportunities for efficiencies and pragmatic decision to meet the changing demand profiles of crime and offending,” said Mr Corrigan.

“Existing joint work on demand modelling and the matching of that data to available and required resources has been best practice, with lessons for other demand led criminal justice services.

“Promoting further mutually beneficial operational cooperation with forensic services in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland has the potential to share and keep pace with new scientific developments, deal with spikes in demand and submissions as well as open new areas of specialism.”

Inspectors found that service delivery was constrained by budget pressures, which contributed to high levels of unfilled vacancies, the loss of highly trained staff, concerns around career pathways and low pay awards and an increasing reliance on overtime.

Staff were very committed to their work and to joint and collaborative working.

“With the current level of risks, inspectors have recommended that the Forensic Services Programme Board should commission a joint workforce plan and that people-focused working groups should present further actions to senior management decision-making bodies,” said the deputy chief inspector.

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