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Last month the UK’s Forensic Science Regulator, Gillian Tully, warned that the cuts to forensic science provision in the UK could lead to miscarriages of justice. I doubt she thought a major case would come up so quickly. It has been reported today that two forensic scientists working for Randox Testing Services in their Manchester toxicology lab have been arrested for manipulation of data.
Since the Forensic Science Service closed there have been repeated warnings about the state of forensic provision in the UK. This was highlighted in the report of Dr Tully last month. There were several areas of concern, particularly Police labs and general funding issues for forensic science. Toxicology was an area mentionned in the report where standards are currently being developed and will be published this year, following consulatation.
So what has happened at Randox? There were several media reports that samples had been tampered with and potentially spiked, but this has been refuted. Randox have issued a statement to correct “gross inaccuracies in media coverage“. Apparently they have identified between 50 and 484 cases where the quality control data may have been manipulated. What did these two rogue toxicologists do then? Well it is hard to say, they could have done several things. Maybe they altered the quality control sample results so they fit the expected pattern. This could have been to cover up poor practice or errors (such as adding too much or too little of a sample), which if inputted correctly would mean the samples would have to be re-run (more work!). Changing the quality control would have the effect that the values produced for the forensic samples could not be relied on. This could have been a one off occurance but looking at the numbers it is likely to have been a few times at least. It appears these actions were deliberate, not incompetance but could be down to a culture of wanting to go home early or not really caring about the outcome. Randox have said that samples will be re analysed where viable, with the cases going back to November 2015 it is possible that many of those samples will have been destroyed.
According to the UKAS accreditation of RTS (see here) the Manchester lab has ISO 17025, which is the accepted standard for measurement and calibration laboratories as expected by the Forensic Science Regulator. This accreditation applies to urine, hair and blood analysis for various types of drugs. With this is in place they have been through a process of review and had their practices checked. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped the manipulation occuring. It is stressed by Randox that it is not a systematic issue, as in it shouldn’t happen without a deliberate (and potentially criminal) act occuring. This is a problem which cannot entirely solved by accreditation. Accreditation shows the systems, equipment and methods are all valid. The lab should have checks in place to prevent this type of act, but if everyone wants to leave early not caring about getting it done correctly, that is when shortcuts are taken or data manipulated.
Randox state that “there is here is no question mark over the RTS quality system”, which seems a little previous when all questions are surely about how the RTS quality system has been manipulated! The only case I can think of that has similarities is that of US forensic scientist Annie Dookhan. In 2013 Dookhan was arrested and admitted to ‘dry labbing’, or making up, the results from potentially thousands of samples. She served two and a half years in prison for her crimes. The justice system relies on forensic science in many cases. It is rare to find cases like this and I hope it remains so. The numbers out of the Manchester lab are much smaller, but the police have acted quickly and I wonder whether we will see charges to the toxicologists?
Thanks for reading!