Accreditation of Forensic Laboratories in Europe (AFORE)
The accreditation of forensic laboratories is very important for stimulating trust when exchanging information. The accreditation process recognizes that a laboratory is operating competently and can generate valid results. It involves assessment by a National Accreditation Body (NAB) against the accepted international standard (ISO/IEC 17025: General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories). Broad and effective management systems are essential (competency, technical, reporting results, continuous improvement) and scientific rigor is ensured with ‘technical experts’ working alongside the NAB assessors.
The EU recognizes that forensic science helps promotes cooperation between the police and judicial authorities, to provide justice across all EU Member States. The EU has developed a Vision for a European Forensic Science Area 2020 with a 6-point action plan (2016). One strand is to “Stimulate accreditation of forensic service providers and competence of forensic personnel on a voluntary basis” and the AFORE project moves this forward in 4 areas:
• The development of a European model for the accreditation of crime scene investigation, a critical and challenging stage in the forensic process. A documented management model will be piloted across several forensic laboratories.
• The provision of training and guidance to support forensic laboratories when introducing the recently updated international standard (ISO/IEC 17025:2017).
• The training of senior forensic practitioners as ‘technical experts’ to work alongside NABs when assessing forensic laboratories in 3 fast developing areas (scene of crime, cybercrime and facial image identification).
• The development of new and updated Best Practice Manuals (BPMs) across a wide range of forensic areas [Digital Images, Fibres, Gunshot Residues, Handwriting, Voice Comparison, Glass and DNA].
The role of forensic science in the investigation and prosecution of crime continues to increase and expand. Furthermore, cross-border crime (terrorism, organised crime, people trafficking etc.) remains very significant meaning that forensic cooperation across international borders is increasingly important. Clearly, this is significant for the operational forensic experts working in forensic science laboratories, but it is also very relevant to the law enforcement stakeholders across the EU (police and judiciary) who rely upon forensic science in their work. Common forensic approaches in different countries inspire confidence such that police operations in one country can make use of forensic information generated in a different country. This is also applicable for use of forensic information in support of courtroom prosecutions.
The EU has recognized the important of harmonising forensic practices across all Member States. The first step was the publication of Council Conclusions in 2011 proposing the creation of a European Forensic Science Area (EU Council Conclusions, 3135th Justice and Home Affairs Council in Brussels, 13th/14th December 2011) linked with the Vision for European Forensic Science 2020. This contained a set of ten wide-ranging objectives. Further Council Conclusions were published in 2016 (EU Council Conclusions and Action Plan on the way forward in view of the creation of a European Forensic Science Area, 3473rd Justice and Home Affairs Council in Brussels, 9th June 2016). The new document includes a detailed action plan with six specific areas:
1. Best Practice Manuals for forensic disciplines.
2. Stimulating exchange of forensic information from databases, for example in the area of weapons and ammunition, explosives and drugs.
3. Proficiency tests and collaborative exercises for forensic disciplines.
4. Forensic awareness and training for law enforcement and justice communities.
5. Stimulate accreditation of forensic service providers and competence of forensic personnel on a voluntary basis,
6. Stimulating exchange of forensic data via Prϋm and improving quality.
Within the Action Plan ENFSI is allocated ‘Coordinator’ role (either alone or combination with Member States) in areas 1, 2, 3. Further, ENFSI is explicitly mentioned as a relevant contributor in areas 4 and 5. Thus, current ENFSI strategic plans are being significantly influenced by the EU Vision for European Forensic Science 2020 and the European Forensic Science Area.
Previous EU Direct Action Grants awarded to ENFSI have been strongly directed towards the specific aims of the EU Vision for European Forensic Science 2020:
• Towards European Forensic Standardisation through Best Practice Manuals – TEFSBPM (HOME/2012/ISEC/MO/ENFSI/4000004278)
• Towards the Vision for European Forensic Science 2020 -TVEFS-2020 (HOME/2013/ISEC/MO/ENFSI/4000005962)
• Towards the Development of Pan-European Databases in Forensic Science (TDPEDFS) (HOME/2014/ISFP/AG/ENFS/7822)
• Steps Towards a European Forensic Science Area (STEFA) ISFP-2016-AG-IBA-ENFSI 779485
The AFORE Project will contribute towards the creation of the European Forensic Science Area 2020. It focuses on 4 activity areas that address the fifth item of the EU Action Plan: “Stimulate accreditation of forensic service providers and competence of forensic personnel on a voluntary basis”.