Forensic science agency ‘in crisis mode’

The State’s forensic science agency is in “crisis” in terms of its staffing and facilities, the head of the body has told an Oireachtas committee.

Director of Forensic Science Ireland, Dr Sheila Willis, said that in her 35 years working in the service there seemed to be “no systematic planning” by governments and departments as to its work.

Despite this, she said the agency — which conducts forensic examination on samples from crime scenes for Garda investigations and criminal prosecutions — provided “very good value for money”.

Dr Willis told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that they had “fewer resources than are necessary” to meet service agreements with An Garda Síochána. She said they have a nominal allocation of 96 staff, but that the actual number was “much lower than that”, due to retirements and resignations.

The director said she was “delighted” with plans to fill vacancies, but said there were time lags between posts being advertised and filled and further delays for the necessary training.

She said that the agency lurched from one crisis to another: “When there is a crisis, like I consider we have now, it’s filled. We survive for a while and then there’s another crisis.

“There seems to be no systematic planning for an ongoing service as I would consider necessary.”

Dr Willis said that if FSI was compared to sister bodies in other jurisdictions “Ireland is getting very good value for money”.

Committee members Niall Collins TD of Fianna Fáil, Alan Farrell TD of Fine Gael and chairman David Stanton of Fine Gael said they had recently visited the laboratory and were very impressed by the work, but accepted the facility they operated in was seriously inadequate.

“The difficulty with the building is similar to the staffing,” Dr Willis said. “We get by. There’s a sticking plaster and it falls again.”

She said: “The facilities are not suited to a modern day laboratory. Various ministers for justice have openly acknowledged this fact in the last 15 years. It is frustrating for staff to manage that situation as well as they can and then be criticised by scientists paid for by the State working for the defence [in prosecutions].”

She said there had been various plans for new buildings, the most recent of which collapsed in 2009 due to the financial crisis.

She said an external investigation of the service — the Kopp review in 2006 — found that their accommodation was “completely inadequate”, as was its storage facilities. At that time, plans for a new laboratory were at an advanced stage.

“You could pick that phrase anytime over the last 20 years,” Dr Willis said.

The Kopp report said a significant number of vacancies had to be filled by accelerated recruitment and noted that consequences of not doing so were “serious”.

It further said plans for a national DNA database — which still has yet to come into being — would need six staff initially and an estimated 64 once up and running, almost 30 of which would have to be recruited.

Dr Willis said the DNA database — signed into law last June — would be a “significant aid to crime investigation” when introduced, saying Ireland was one of the last countries in the developed world without one.

She said recommendations were being made in the UK regarding DNA profiles which FSI “certainly couldn’t meet now”, noting that many of its inspections were by British experts.

Dr Sean McDermott, director of FSI operations, said that a 2012 report by the Department of Public Expenditure had confirmed FSI’s present accommodation was “inadequate” and suffered from “overcrowding” and that there was no room for the DNA database. It said both it and the Department of Justice accepted it needed a new facility.

Meanwhile, Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan told the committee that 325 new recruits were needed every year just to keep the strength of the force at the minimum level of 13,000.


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