Presentations from the International Symposium on Setting Quality Standards for the Forensic Community (Part 1;Forensic Science Communications, July 1999)
July 1999 - Volume 1 - Number 2
Presentations at the
International Symposium on Setting Quality Standards for the Forensic Community
San Antonio, Texas
May 3-7, 1999
The following abstracts of the presentations are ordered alphabetically by authors’ last names.
More than a decade of steady efforts on the part of the forensic community has produced a solid body of data that supports the use of standard laboratory techniques and procedures for use in forensic genetic typing. These methods have included use of sizing methods to detect length polymorphisms—both restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLP) and variable number of tandem repeat polymorphisms (VNTR). More recently, gel-based matrices and capillary electrophoresis have been developed and validated for detection and typing of short tandem repeat (STR) polymorphisms. Sequence variation can be detected by both reverse dot-blot methods to detect allelic sequence variation in the HLA DQ-alpha and other loci and by direct sequencing of portions of the mitochondrial chromosome. Much of the international forensic community now has embraced STR typing for routine use in typing of evidentiary samples and for civil paternity testing. At the same time, many of the statistical questions have been addressed and resolved, including questions of population substructure and of allelic diversity in many human population groups and questions surrounding databases and data banks for forensic use.
Although the forensic community is successfully meeting the current demand for DNA profiling, ongoing efforts will be required to meet the challenges of new techniques of DNA analysis as well as other issues. New areas that promise exciting developments in the near future include the identification of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in forensic evidence, mathematical and statistical issues, the analysis of nonhuman DNA evidence, and matters pertaining to genetic privacy.
Single nucleotide polymorphisms are common in the human genome and represent another tremendous source of genetic variation for use by both researchers and the forensic community. These polymorphisms are not nearly as powerful individually compared to STRs or to VNTRs, but the sheer number and potential for automated allele typing make them attractive candidates for research and development by the forensic community. Y-chromosome SNPs will certainly be of great use in forensic testing of mixed-source evidentiary samples. Those involved in one commercial venture (Affymetrix, Santa Clara, California) recently announced development of a human SNP array that will include 1,500 markers covering the entire human genome. Microchip arrays are but one possible method for typing SNPs, and it will be important for the forensic community to provide input into the development of lower-cost technologies if SNPs are to be widely used for forensic testing.
Several issues of statistical genetics are relevant in the interpretation of DNA profiling of evidentiary and known samples. These include consideration of blood relatives when sample quality permits only partial profiling of evidentiary samples. Furthermore, mutation-rate assessment of the STR loci will be most helpful in instances to avoid the potential for false exclusions. Several sound methods are available in the interpretations of evidence derived from multiple sources. These include likelihood ratio analysis as well as probability-of-exclusion calculations. Software already available in the forensic community will continue to make validation of local databases possible in a prompt fashion.
Nonhuman DNA evidence will become increasingly important in a wide variety of forensic applications. These include typing for species identification (e.g., animal poaching, endangered species capture, and illegal hunting and export) and paternity testing (fraud involving misrepresentation of kinship relations in breeding of economically important species, including horses, dogs, and cattle). In addition, dog, cat, and rare plant DNA profiling will become increasingly important in cases in which DNA evidence from such species are important evidentiary clues in the investigation of felony crimes. This will bring several issues to the attention of the courts, including questions about novelty and application of laboratory methods such as random amplified polymorphism detection and amplification fragment length polymorphism, validation of theories of genetic diversity, and estimation of match probabilities in nonhuman species, some of which reproduce asexually. Although none of these matters present insurmountable challenges, the forensic community will need to coordinate their efforts in creating animal and plant databases and in the study of life cycles and breeding patterns of certain relevant nonhuman species.
Finally, issues of genetic privacy certainly will continue to arise as the forensic community deals with different statutory legislation regulating information transfer between and among jurisdictional boundaries. For example, situations may arise in which computerized searching of profiles in a forensic data bank leads to partial hits, suggesting that the true contributor to an evidentiary sample is a blood relative of the individual whose profile is lawfully stored. Whether the policy or statute in each jurisdiction will permit transfer of such leads back to investigators is but one matter that merits careful scrutiny by the forensic community.
Each of the previously mentioned areas represents both challenges and opportunities for modern forensic scientists. Each will add to the exculpatory and inclusionary power of forensic DNA typing for thoughtful, deliberate, and reasoned use in matters of science, law, and public policy.
In Dr. Janet Thompson’s presentation, she explained the work of the various working groups and committees within the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (ENFSI) and how they have improved communication and cooperation between the European forensic science laboratories and law enforcement organizations. However, it was recognized by ENFSI that each of the working groups was to some extent plowing its own furrow with little current appreciation of what the other working groups were doing, and there might well be some duplication of effort. Last autumn a joint meeting of ENFSI members and working group chairmen was held in Paris to share experiences between the working groups, see how they related to other similar bodies, and look at how the working groups might relate best to one another and to ENFSI.
This meeting was hugely successful and led to a realization that all the working groups were in fact trying to tackle somewhat similar issues with somewhat similar priorities:
- standardization/harmonization/development of best practise manuals;
- proficiency testing/collaborative exercises;
- databases/reference collections/exchange of information;
- European Union funding; and
It was also recognized that there was an underlying need for support in taking this work forward so that all the issues would best be approached from the perspective of quality principles. This led to much discussion of the role of the Quality Assurance Working Group and its relationship with the other working groups. In the end, it was concluded that it should have an underpinning role of supporting the other working groups and providing a framework of quality policies and principles to help them to develop best practise in line with international quality standards.
Quality Assurance Working Group
The Quality Assurance Working Group was inaugurated in 1996 at a meeting in Rijswijk in The Netherlands. It has a board of six members, drawn mainly from northwestern Europe and a total of 41 representatives from 23 different countries. The full Quality Assurance Working Group has met only twice to date, but the board has met four times, and it is the board that makes the major contribution in developing proposals and policies.
This method of operation is a little different from that of the other working groups, where the whole body of the membership tends to be involved in everything. But there are reasons for this. These lie largely in the wide gulf that exists in the formal adoption of the broader principles of quality assurance throughout Europe. As a rough generalization, those in the northwest are quite well advanced in working to recognized international quality standards, but those in southern Europe and particularly the emergent nations of eastern Europe have not yet embraced them to the same extent for a range of different reasons. But the growing number of member countries in our working group clearly indicates a desire from everyone throughout Europe to find out more about what is involved and how they can move forward.
Aim and Achievements of the Quality Assurance Working Group
The aim of the Quality Assurance Working Group is to promote quality in forensic science by providing information and advice on standards, accreditation schemes, training, and education to achieve competence and the principles to be followed for the quality management of reference materials, data banks, proficiency tests, and the interpretation of evidence.
During the first two years, we provided advice on standards when requested, but we concentrated on promoting laboratory accreditation and developing a number of specific quality management policies. Since the meeting last autumn in Paris, we have also begun to think about the design of best practise manuals.
Accreditation of Laboratories
The ENFSI board recognized at an early stage the benefits to be obtained from formal accreditation of laboratories to international standards and requested the Quality Assurance Working Group to develop a policy statement for ENFSI that would encourage laboratories to move along this path. The statement we developed, which has now been endorsed by ENFSI, is as follows:
The ENFSI board wishes to promote consistent and reliable evidence through the whole forensic process, from scene of incident to court. As one part of this aim, it is the policy of the ENFSI board that all member laboratories should have achieved, or should be taking steps towards, ISO Guide 25 compliant accreditation (e.g., EN 45001) for their laboratory testing activities.
In determining this policy the board accepts that progress will be slower in some countries than others for a number of reasons including differences in national accreditation systems and differences in the operation of legal systems.
Where ISO Guide 25 compliant accreditation cannot be achieved, the board encourages the use of other quality management standards with broadly equivalent objectives.
However, it is one thing gaining commitment to a principle and another seeing action being implemented. The Quality Assurance Working Group Board also decided on a strategy for promoting the move towards accreditation. This initially involved trying to raise the awareness of the requirements of the international standards such as ISO 9000 and EN 45001 among member laboratories and making contact with all the laboratories and their national accreditation bodies (each country has its own, and few have any experience of accrediting forensic science laboratories) to make them aware of the existence of each other. We have also encouraged the other working groups to be represented on our working group. We devoted the Quality Assurance Working Group meeting we held in Birmingham in March this year wholly to the theme of accreditation, and we have also recently conducted a survey of member laboratories to identify what their plans are in terms of going for accreditation and where the Quality Assurance Working Group might be able to assist.
We have been helped considerably in raising the profile of international standards by the imminent conversion of ISO Guide 25 to a new standard, ISO 17025, and the opportunity provided to involve everyone in assisting the International Laboratory Accreditation Co-operation (ILAC) working group develop new international guidelines to assist in the interpretation of ISO 17025 for forensic science laboratories.
Quality Management Policies
Two quality management policies have been developed by the Quality Assurance Working Group Board during the last year and exposed for comment to the Quality Assurance Working Group and the joint meeting of Working Group Chairmen and ENFSI members in Paris. These were
- Guidance on the Conduct of Proficiency Tests and Collaborative Exercises and
- Guidance on the Management of Reference Materials and Databases.
The former is based on the requirements of ISO Guide 43, the nascent associated ILAC guidelines, and the practical experience of our board. Its principles have been endorsed by the meetings, but again it has been agreed that the pace of its implementation should be a matter for individual laboratories and working groups, depending on their other priorities. It is pleasing to see that the principles also have been adopted recently by SWGMAT.
The second policy on reference materials and databases has been adopted similarly by ENFSI and is serving as a useful guide to individual working groups in their work.
The Quality Assurance Working Group Board has also produced Guidelines for the Workplace Assessment of Competence. This document was shared with our working group and the joint meeting in Paris and will now be offered to the Education and Training Committee for consideration. These guidelines are based on a great deal of work, which I shall refer to briefly later, that has been done in this area during the last few years in the United Kingdom.
Best Practise Manuals
The top priority for all the ENFSI working groups at present is the development of best practise manuals with a view to achieving more standardization or harmonization of approach.
We have begun only recently to give serious thought to how we might be able to support this best, but we have concluded already that there cannot be any such thing as absolute best practise. Rather, we see best practise as the means by which the optimum outcome can be achieved for a particular requirement under a given set of circumstances. It depends on the circumstances of the offense, the questions that need to be addressed, the purpose for which the information is required, and any specific requirements of the law or criminal justice system. Best practise guidelines, in our view, only can aim to establish and maintain working practises that lead to more consistent methodology, provide results that are comparable, minimize the risk of error, and provide the desired quality of information on time and at an acceptable cost. They should be based clearly on sound quality assurance principles.
Our initial ideas for a framework within which each working group can develop its own best practise manual are that it should encompass, from the scene of incident to the court, all activities within the forensic process; identify all the relevant quality issues that need to be taken into account; and refer the working group to sources of information that will help its deliberations. As such the manuals might have chapters dealing with
- establishing the requirement;
- case assessment;
- prioritization and sequence of examinations;
- examination of the scene, victims, and suspects;
- laboratory examinations;
- laboratory records;
- evaluation and interpretation;
- presentation of evidence;
- quality assurance; and
- health and safety.
Future Work Plan of the Quality Assurance Working Group
Our priority activities during the next year will be to
- continue to promote and facilitate the accreditation of laboratories and to seek funding from the European Union for this,
- support the work of the Education and Training Committee, and
- complete the template for the other working groups to use to develop their own best practise manuals (which we hope to take forward in discussion with another meeting of working group chairmen in the autumn).
We will also need to complete our input into the ILAC document for forensic science laboratories.
Our longer term work plan includes developing best practise guidelines on the validation of new methods, accreditation in difficult areas, quality assurance in research and development, management of computerized laboratories, case assessment, interpretation issues, and implementation of total quality management.
Other Quality Initiatives in the United Kingdom
I conclude by mentioning some of the local quality initiatives we have been pushing forward in the United Kingdom. In particular, I introduce the concept of accreditation or certification of forensic scientists, rather than their laboratories, systems, and procedures that have dominated the European agenda to date. It is only when the people and the systems, procedures, and facilities available to them are properly under control, I believe, that we can really hope to ensure quality in our work. I would also like to mention some steps that are being taken in the United Kingdom to register forensic practitioners according to their demonstrated scope of competence.
Occupational Standards and Vocational Qualifications
We have a strongly held view that it is not sufficient for forensic scientists simply to hold academic qualifications. What is required is that they have demonstrated competence in the workplace, whether this be practical bench work or the assessment, interpretation, and reporting of results. To demonstrate competence, we first have to have agreed standards of performance and methods of assessing people against those standards. Competence may also be lost if it is not practised or kept up-to-date, so it is important that it is checked at regular intervals.
We have done a great deal during the last few years in the forensic science sector in the United Kingdom to develop standards of performance and assessment of performance in the workplace. To date we have worked on standards and the establishment of vocational qualifications based on assessment against these for
- recovery of material in the laboratory,
- crime scene investigation,
- crime scene management,
- blood and body fluids,
- questioned documents,
- marks and impressions,
- road traffic accidents,
- fire and explosions,
- firearms, and
- trace evidence.
In the Forensic Science Service we have used the national vocational qualifications-type of approach very successfully during the past year to bring more than 100 new recruits up to the level where we can confidently employ them in the role of expert witnesses after only nine months in the job.
This standards work will continue, and the wider aspects of training for forensic scientists will also be developed under the auspices of the new Forensic Science Sector Committee of our National Training Organization. This represents the interests of not only scientists in the public sector laboratories, but also police employees involved in the collection and examination of physical evidence and scientists working in private organizations and for the defense as well.
Registration of Forensic Practitioners
The ideal of all forensic practitioners being assessed as to their competence is also forming the basis for a national Register of Forensic Practitioners.
The idea of establishing a body that would lay down and implement consistently high standards of competence and integrity in forensic science has its roots in a number of prominent miscarriages of justice that occurred in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. This gave rise to considerable public concern in the late 1980s when the guilty verdicts were overturned by the Court of Appeal. This, in turn, led to a Report on Forensic Science by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in 1993, which recommended the creation of an Advisory Board and a Register for Forensic Scientists, and a further report by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1993, which recommended the creation of a Forensic Science Advisory Council. In 1996, there was a serious contamination incident in a terrorist explosives case, and yet a third report was produced, this time recommending an Inspectorate of Forensic Science Services or, again, registration.
Notwithstanding all this, the government did not introduce statutory regulation of forensic science. The government recognized that most of the problems occurred a considerable time ago, and since then, the law on disclosure led to much more open appreciation of scientific evidence. Also, the forensic science community itself took very significant steps to improve the quality of its work through accreditation of its laboratories to international standards and the introduction of national vocational qualifications for its people.
A system of voluntary self-regulation therefore was seen as the best way forward and, following an initiative within the forensic science community led by Dr. Thompson, the Chief Executive of the Forensic Science Service, a working group was established under an eminent scientist, Lord Lewis, to advise on how best to establish this. This recommended the formation of a Registration Council.
The process of setting up this Registration Council for Forensic Practitioners is now moving apace. It will be a company limited by guarantee, possibly registered as a charity, and will comprise a council of practitioners, other stakeholders, lay representatives, an executive board tasked with the running the organization, and a number of assessment panels.
The founding principles of the register are that it will
- cover the whole forensic process, from the scene of incident to the court;
- encompass the whole of the United Kingdom;
- be independent and eventually self-financing through registration fees; and
- set consistently high standards of competence, practise, and discipline in which the users of forensic science and the public could have confidence.
It will thus not be an assessment body itself but will require evidence of competence to be provided by potential registrants. This evidence could well be derived from the building blocks already in place, like the national vocational qualifications for professional knowledge and practical skills, the Forensic Science Society Diplomas, and academic qualifications for other knowledge-based requirements, suitably augmented where gaps or deficiencies are identified. Evidence of continuing professional competence will have to be shown, probably every three to four years, for reregistration.
The council is pushing forward in a number of discrete areas initially—fingerprints, document examination, and DNA—while developing a clear code of practise and discipline arrangements based on this code, which is essential if registration is to have any teeth. It is anticipated that the first registrations will be made within the year.
I have attempted to explain the way in which the working groups in ENFSI are developing and, in particular, the underpinning role of quality and the Quality Assurance Working Group. I have also introduced the steps we are taking in the United Kingdom to ensure that practitioners of forensic science are up to the mark. I think there is a great deal we can learn from one another in both these areas.