Mumbai: Where's the regulatory body for forensic science laboratories?
Last month, when Rabia Khan demanded that the results of the private forensic tests she had authorised in her daughter Jiah Khan's suicide case be added to the chargesheet filed, it garnered little attention. However, it points to the mushrooming of private - yet unregulated - forensic science laboratories across the world that many senior forensic scientists and lawyers say is becoming a matter of grave concern. Meanwhile, a draft Bill to have a regulatory body - Forensic Regulatory and Development Authority of India - along the lines of SEBI, TRAI and IRDA has been languishing with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Presently, private labs across Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi, Gujarat and others offer questioned document, cyber forensics, fingerprinting, audio-video forensics, cellphone forensics, forensic DNA & biology, ballistics, and toxicology among other services, but without accredited credentials - both of the lab and the 'experts' conducting them - authorities fear they can jeopardise the entire criminal jurisprudence.
Most of the services also need high-end equipment and permission from the state. So, for example, how does a private lab do ballistic testing without a firing range is one among the many questions yet to be addressed.
Interestingly, even before 2011 was declared the Forensic Science Year, in July 2010, former directors of FSL, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, Dr Gopal Misra, and Dr C Damodaran, respectively, had submitted a 500-page 50-year reform plan titled 'Perspective Plan for Indian Forensics'. Misra said, "Some of the recommendations made were implemented by the government, but unfortunately, officials in MHA at that time retired, and with that, the rest of the policy is pending."
Notable aspects of the report read, "An overarching statutory body, namely Forensic Council of India, should be constituted. Under this, forensic practitioners should be taken care of. For this, a Forensic Act should be passed by Parliament."
It pointed out, "The writing on the wall is that there is demand for forensic practitioners and there is supply of forensic science passouts. So, there is an urgent need for ensuring quality of professionals and education."
Bill in limbo
Dr Mohinder Singh Dahiya, in-charge director general and director of the Institute of Forensic Science, Gujarat, said, "There has to be a licensing/accreditation system introduced by the MHA, and it needs to put proper guidelines in place at the earliest."
A senior forensic scientist said, "Usually, private labs indulge in handwriting, signature or document matching, and such opinions are admissible in court, but these days, DNA paternity testing amongst disputed couples is also being accepted."
AK Ganjoo, director, Directorate of Forensic Science, and chief forensic scientist, MHA, admitted, "There needs to be a regulatory body, but we cannot stop the functioning of any private laboratory."
Helpless cops, lawyers
Meanwhile, SP Yadav, state DGP, (technical and law) said, "We are aware of the private forensic labs mushrooming but are not empowered to take any action as there is no regulatory body or guidelines."
He, however, added, "In Maharashtra, we have instructed all officers to send samples to state-run laboratories only, not to private labs."
Dinesh Tiwari, a senior criminal lawyer, said there is every possibility the public might get carried away by such private laboratories, which charge exorbitant fees for opinions that are not even accepted in court during trials.
Former chief public prosecutor and senior counsel Rohini Salian added, "Sections 293 and 294 of the Criminal Procedure Code and section 45 of the Evidence Act accept expert findings in a criminal trial. But if the very existence of the lab where the tests are done is questionable, and if the person has not examined a particular specimen himself, then how he would satisfy the court? This is serious and has to be looked into, as credentials of all the people working in such private labs need to be verified, or else, the criminal jurisprudence will be in jeopardy."
Some points of concern
- Retired forensic scientists are brought in who are not abreast with the latest techniques
- No guidelines or registration process in place to ensure authenticity of the reports
- Private institutions offering forensic courses without proper accreditation
- No registration system for forensic experts in the country
- No minimum experience at a renowned institute or under a forensic expert required before submitting expert opinion
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