Friday, May 14, 2004


Suspects in methamphetamine manufacturing cases are facing up to three years in jail on remand while waiting for ESR to analyse the evidence. One suspect has waited a year already - and his case hasn't even made it to a depositions hearing, let alone trial.

A High Court Judge has called this situation "intolerable", and I agree. Waiting years on remand before facing trial means that suspects will pay the price regardless of guilt or innocence. It's a violation of human rights and of natural justice. And if it continues, we are going to see charges dismissed and people going free, or judges granting bail and suspects reoffending - which will no doubt be exploited by politicians to argue for increased penalties and longer sentences.

As for why this is happening, yes, the direct cause is that ESR doesn't have enough trained forensic scientists. But the root cause is their funding model. CRI's are no longer funded simply to maintain a capability; no-one is giving ESR money just to be a decent forensics lab (or rather, the "non-specific" funding they get from the government is nowhere near enough to cover this). Instead, they must get funding on a project-by-project basis, from FRST, the private sector, or other organisations. This unstable revenue stream affects staffing decisions and encourages CRIs to keep core staff numbers low.

In the case of ESR Forensics, they get a lot of their funding from the police, on a case-by-case basis. This provides even less stability than usual, and its easy to see how they could be caught short-staffed by an epidemic, and be reluctant to hire more (because they'll just have to lay them off when the epidemic passes), or have difficulty doing so (temporary contingent employment is not the norm in science, and potential staff would be reluctant to accept it).

ESR have said they can reduce the backlog if given a one-off cash injection of around a million dollars - enough to hire extra staff and provide stability for four or five years (by way of comparison, ESR's total revenue last year was $33 million, so this represents a substantial increase in funding). But in the long-term, the government is going to have to fund CRIs more on a capability basis if it wants to avoid this problem happening again and again and again.

(And for those on the right, no, this is not something we can simply contract out. Few labs are accredited for forensic work, and we should be very uneasy about involving organisations legally required to be driven solely by the profit motive in a core aspect of our judicial system).