Failing forensic lab - Audit reveals several concerns in operations of government facility

Published: Sunday | December 29, 2013 Comments 0
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.

All is not well at the state-run Forensic Services Laboratory (FSL), leading to fears that test results, whenever they are finally done, could be deliberately contaminated and unreliable.

In its 2013 annual report, the Auditor General's (AG) Department says following a probe of the FSL it has recommended a review of the operational processes at the lab, with a view to identifying deficiencies and implementing initiatives geared towards greater productivity and efficiency.

Among the worrying findings by the AG's Department is that members of the police force are intimately involved in the operations of the lab.

The AG noted that in keeping with international standards, the FSL is required to be an independent body and its key personnel should be free from any possible undue influence and potential conflicts of interest.

However, the FSL is a department within Jamaica Constabulary Force and receives its budgetary allocations from the recurrent budget of the force.

Potential conflicts of interest

In addition, 24 ballistic experts and technical officers assigned to FSL are police officers, who inevitably conduct forensic analyses on evidence in cases involving their colleagues.

"These circumstances could give rise to potential conflicts of interest, and the FSL's independence and that of the 24 ballistic experts and technical officers could be compromised," said the AG's Department in its report tabled in Parliament last week.

"If the laboratory wishes to be recognised as a third-party laboratory, it should be able to demonstrate that it is impartial, and that it and its personnel are free from any undue commercial, financial and other pressures which might influence their technical judgement," the AG's Department noted.

According to the report, during a focus group discussion with FSL's stakeholders, concerns were expressed that its current structure may expose its staff to undue influence, which might impair its technical judgements.

This is one of many international standards not being met by the local body which is in charge of all government forensic analysis.

"We reviewed 20 International Laboratory Accreditation Corporation (ILAC) standards and found that FSL has only met 10. (The) FSL informed us that based on its own estimation the laboratory is 40 per cent compliant with ILAC standards," said the AG in its report.

The report also noted that it is taking the forensic lab up to one year to conduct analyses and prepare the related certificates for criminal cases.

According to the AG's Department, a 2006-2007 study in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) showed that the average turnaround time to process narcotics was one month, while in Jamaica it is taking the FSL two to three months.

"T&T's turnaround time for toxicology testing, which deals with bodily fluids in respect of drugs and poisons, ranges from three weeks to one month; while FSL's turnaround time ranges from three to seven months," the report noted.

"FSL attributed the inefficiency in the timely completion of forensic analyses and resulting backlog in outstanding forensic certificates to the issue of staff and equipment shortage," added the report.

In its recommendations, the AG's Department urged the police force and the Ministry of National Security to review the current staffing arrangement at the lab to determine the extent to which the current structure can be reorganised to improve the staff/case ratio.

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