Home > Report highlights limitations in Forensic Science Laboratory resources.

Connolly, Johnny (2008) Report highlights limitations in Forensic Science Laboratory resources. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 25, Spring 2008, p. 21.

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A review of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) by Professor Ingvar Kopp, former director of the Swedish National Forensic Science Laboratory and founding member of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, has found that approximately one-third of drug samples submitted by the Garda Síochána for analysis between 2000 and 2006 were not processed because of resource limitations.1 As a consequence of this unmet demand for forensic services, he concludes, ‘the detection and prosecution of crime is weakened … particularly so in drug analysis cases, where a certificate is required for prosecution’ (p. 19).

Suspected drugs seized by the gardaí and by customs are submitted to the FSL for analysis to determine whether an illicit substance is present. Samples are submitted in tamper-evident bags, with a Garda form which lists the items being submitted. The Kopp report points to unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles, stating that ‘in relation to drug cases, there is a lot of manual handling and duplication of data entry’ (p. 16). The process by which items are received is, according to the report, ‘very cumbersome’, due in part to legal constraints and in part ‘to practices grown with the development of the Laboratory’ (p. 16). A time-consuming practice has developed whereby labels on the packing and detailed descriptions of the contents form part of the laboratory report. The report recommends that this practice be rationalised by means of FSL/Garda review of case management procedures and by the automation of procedures and minimisation of manual data entry.
The report also notes, however, that legal constraints require rigorous procedures to be in place. It is not unusual, according to the report, ‘for the questioning in court to focus more on the physical appearance of the item rather than analytical results’ (p. 16). This can occur even in drug cases, as the court may want to probe ‘what the Garda recorded or saw prior to submitting the sample to the Laboratory’ (p. 16). Furthermore, beyond the focus on the appearance of evidence, ‘enormous and disproportionate demands’ are placed on the laboratory arising from the need to certify the chain of evidence. The report recommends that the Law Reform Commission or another suitable expert body be commissioned to conduct a study in order to ‘evaluate the scope for a more efficient means of approaching the management of physical evidence’ (p. 17).

Table 1 shows the number of drug cases received by the FSL from the Garda Síochána and the number of cases reported (i.e. processed). Of the 61,639 drug cases submitted for analysis between 2000 and 2006, 41,230 were analysed, leaving a shortfall of 20,409, or just over 33%.

In addition to the unmet demands for the existing services available from the laboratory, the report points to the need for resources to cover an additional service, in the context of drug-related sexual assaults. The FSL has carried out alcohol determinations on biological samples submitted relating to victims of sexual assault. In more recent years, requests have been expanded to test for the presence of controlled drugs. However, the report points out that the FSL has not been able to meet this demand and estimates that, were it able to provide such a service, approximately 150 of such cases would arise annually.

The report also emphasises the importance of the FSL engaging with academic and research institutions, and recommends that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform fund and support the FSL so that it can participate in joint research projects with other institutions, such as the Health Research Board (p. 41). In relation to drug purity, for example, this approach could enhance our understanding of the operation of illicit drug markets. Systematic purity testing of drugs seized at all market levels can provide useful information on market dynamics and profit margins.2 Forensic analysis of seized drugs can also provide us with information on the types of dilutants used to bulk up drugs for street sale, a practice which can have important health consequences for drug users.

Although the FSL sometimes conducts ad hoc studies, only a very small proportion of drugs seized are tested to ascertain their percentage purity. For example, in 2003, the laboratory received over 600 suspected heroin cases, of which 11 were analysed to determine their percentage purity.2   Further research such as that recommended in this report would assist in providing an evidence-base upon which to develop criminal justice interventions.

The study concluded that the current resource limitations have implications for crime control and law enforcement:

The consequences of the current inability to meet actual and suppressed demands are serious. Investigations and prosecutions which could benefit from forensic analysis are deprived of additional insight and this has inevitable consequences in the fight against crime. (p. 8)

1. Kopp I (2007) Review of resource needs in the Forensic Science Laboratory and the wider scientific context in Ireland. Department of Health and Children.
2. Connolly J (2005) The illicit drug market in Ireland. Overview 2. Dublin: Health Research Board.
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 25, Spring 2008
Page Range
p. 21
Health Research Board
Issue 25, Spring 2008
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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