Scandal in Manchester laboratory leads to calls for better scrutiny of drug testing in family courts
During child custody cases, the court may require drug tests to be carried out, with the results used as expert evidence as part of the decision-making process. However, concerns have been raised as to the quality of this evidence, following news that the police are investigating potential manipulation of drug test results from two companies, Trimega Laboratories Limited and Randox Testing Services, after two forensic scientists from a Manchester laboratory were arrested.
Between 2010 and 2014, the laboratory in question was run by Trimega. When Trimega then went into administration, Randox took over that laboratory. The two employees who were arrested were working at the laboratory throughout this whole period. The Home Office have announced an investigation which will review 10,000 criminal cases and any child protection proceedings in which drug tests have been conducted by Trimega or Randox. The Daily Mail has predicted that more than 34,000 child custody cases could be impacted.
Dr Gillian Tully spoke to The Guardian and explained that she had previously raised concerns with the policing minister about the lack of regulation of forensic companies working with the family courts. Indeed, concerns have been raised since 2012 about the accuracy of drug test results provided by Trimega Laboratories to the family courts. Norman Lamb, Chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, has called for a public inquiry because of the effect that this will have had on families across the country. The policing minister, Nick Hurd, has attempted to offer some reassurance by saying that, although record-keeping standards may not allow for all tests to be reviewed, he believes that it is “unlikely that decisions about the welfare of children will have been taken solely on the basis of toxicology test results”.
However, the 2012 case of Bristol City Council v A and A, and SB and CB, and Concateno and Trimega demonstrates the importance of such expert evidence. The first test, carried out by Trimega Laboratories, showed the mother’s drug use right up to the date of the taking of the sample. The mother disputed the results and was tested a second time using hair taken at the same time as the original sample. The test was carried out by a different company and the mother was shown not to have taken drugs for the time period in question. Mr Justice Baker highlighted that “a high degree of responsibility is entrusted to expert witnesses in family cases” and that “erroneous expert evidence may lead to the gravest miscarriage of justice imaginable – the wrongful removal of children from their families”.
The Ministry of Justice has set out guidance for those who are concerned about the tests and have said that, as a precaution, they are currently treating any test results from these two companies as potentially unreliable. The guidance from the Ministry of Justice offers options for those who are concerned that the tests from the laboratories in question have been used in their cases and may have materially affected the decision. They suggest calling the local authority or the solicitor who acted in the court proceedings for further help, and explain that it is possible to ask the court to consider changing or setting aside the order made in the proceedings. They have made it clear that they will be working with the police to establish just how serious the situation is and how it has impacted on cases.
Some are of the view that, since the government-run Forensic Science Service closed in 2012, the quality of such tests have suffered. Before this, scientists were routinely monitored through mock cases. Professor Peter Gill, a professor of forensics at Oslo University, has said that the problem is that “nobody really cares until something like this happens” and that companies can get away with “dubious practice” for many years. It is, as yet, unclear quite how serious the impact will be but, given that thousands of cases have involved tests carried out by these companies as part of the decisions, there is no doubt that an extremely extensive review is required.
Lisa Robertson – Vardags
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