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A ”European forensic science area” re-enters the spotlight again

Euro-View: Pawel Rybicki on European forensics

Pawel Rybicki

Forensic science is rapidly growing in importance for the security and justice of European citizens – and the EU is now marching faster toward the creation by 2020 of a “European Forensic Science Area” (EFSA2020), based on achieving certain common forensic standards.

In my opinion, this is exactly what is needed in the forensics field for many reasons. For example, setting up EFSA2020 will give a big boost to cooperation among Europe’s forensic science providers by promoting mutual trust. Similarly, it should help reinforce collaboration between judicial and law enforcement authorities as well.

Moreover, carving out an investigative “space” for Europe that operates according to common awareness and acceptance of forensic standards will help reduce judicial misunderstandings, minimise protracted appeal procedures and avoid legal rejections based on poor or misinterpreted forensic evidence. Finally, it should have a positive economic impact by reducing the cost of criminal proceedings and avoiding duplicative forensic efforts.

Clearly, the forensic science sector in Europe deserves a more comprehensive, consistent and strategic approach. I believe EFSA2020 still can be a significant step in that direction, even if some of its original goals have been watered down.

The EFSA idea was given its first push by EU justice and home affairs ministers in late 2011 via an action plan which laid down 10 wide-ranging objectives.

These included accreditation procedures of forensic science institutes and laboratories; the definition of competence criteria for forensic science personnel; proficiency tests and collaborative exercises for forensic activities at the international level; identification of optimal ways to create and use forensic databases; and applying minimum quality standards to scene-of-crime investigations and how evidence would be managed, from the crime scene to the court room.

A set of priorities was devoted to the research and development and education and training activities and there was even a call to recognise equivalency of law enforcement forensic activities between the member states to avoid duplication of effort.

Five years later, however, many of these goals now seem to have been too ambitious. A revised EFSA2020 action, approved by the Council on 9 June, reveals essential differences.

First of all, its scope is smaller and now encompasses only six areas. These call for:

  • the creation of best practice manuals for forensic disciplines
  • stimulating the exchange of forensic information from databases in the areas of weapons and ammunition, explosives and drugs
  • proficiency tests and collaborative exercises for forensic disciplines
  • forensic awareness and training for law enforcement and justice communities
  • “stimulating” the accreditation of forensic service providers and competence of forensic personnel – but on a voluntary basis
  • promoting and improving the exchange of forensic data via the 2005 Prum Treaty (whose signatory nations – essentially the Schengen countries – exchange data regarding DNA, fingerprints, vehicle registration and other crime-related data)

Some of original 2011 goals were dropped, while others were merged or lost their priority but even so, if progress is achieved toward these six goals that will nevertheless represent a big step towards EFSA2020.

The Council also called for monitoring schemes to track the action plan’s objectives. Each action from now on will have its own coordinator. What is more, for each of the actions a detailed roadmap will be presented to the Council’s law enforcement working party. Regular reporting on each action’s implementation will be mandatory and, during the first half of 2018, a midterm progress report on the action plan as a whole will be presented to the EU’s all-important Standing Committee on Internal Security (known by its acronym in French as COSI).

As for the financial side to forensic science, the Council noted that additional funding from the European Commission would be crucial for implementing the new action plan and developing the European Forensic Science Area. The ministers called for support for forensic sciences via Horizon 2020, the EU’s general research budget, and via the Commission’s Internal Security Funds – meaning the wherewithal for EFSA2020 should be assured.

If it is allowed to fully flourish, EFSA2020 offers Europe the chance to raise the quality level of its forensic science and, in doing so, improve the public’s confidence in the administration of justice. Thus, it will be very interesting to see the progress report in early 2018 on how the six new EFSA goals have been implemented.

     Pawel Rybicki is president of the management board of The European Forensic Initiatives Centre (EFIC), located in Warsaw. He can be reached at pawel.rybicki@efic.pl

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