Government's decision to delay in forensic lab funds ‘cynical’

The State’s forensic science chief has described as cynical the Government’s decision to delay funding for a much-needed forensic laboratory until 2019.

Sheila Willis said she was “devastated” when Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald announced the funding date last September at the launch of a plan on justice capital projects.

The director general of Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) was responding to the publication in the Irish Examiner yesterday of letters she wrote to the Department of Justice outlining her “extreme concern” at the delayed start date for the new facility.

She wrote that the building would not become available until “2022 at the earliest”.

In the letters, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Dr Willis warned the minister and secretary general Noel Waters of a risk of contamination of DNA samples and the “unthinkable” consequences in the courts.

She wrote that such a disaster would result in “very large expense and untold reputational damage” both to the FSI and the Irish Criminal Justice System.

In addition, she revealed that the new DNA database, launched last November, will be ineffective because of the limited capacity to process sufficient samples.

Interviewed about the letters on RTÉ’s News at One programme yesterday, Dr Willis said she was very frustrated at the date announced in the capital plan.

“I was devastated. I thought it was so cynical to find a date of 2019 because it won’t be 2019, it will be some time after that as it is a highly technical build.

“I could understand that date if this was a new project because there is a lot of planning, but this project is actually ready to go and I can’t understand what would make things different between now and 2019 other than some big major problem from the laboratory and I don’t want to be the person who is overseeing that,” she said.

Asked what she thought of the response by the minister and the department, she said: “I think the response that there was money allocated was deemed to be something I should have been quite pleased about, but I found that to be quite a cynical response.”

In her letters, she said the lack of modern laboratories posed a risk of DNA contamination and required her to devote “more and more staff” to conduct checks and double checks.

She said her “greatest fear” was if a “difficulty” emerged with a result that was put out by the laboratory. The biggest thing would be people wondering if everything else was reliable, so it wouldn’t be a one-off situation.”

However, she added: “The complete effort and focus of everyone in the laboratory is that doesn’t happen. I’m happy that I can stand over the results that are generated, but in an overcrowded situation, there is a real risk of either a sample being mixed up or a sample from one side of a case being transferred to another.”

She said the DNA database was only being “partially implemented”. She said the taking of reference samples from people (from suspects and those convicted of serious crimes) had already resulted in an 80% increase in cases.


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