The government is offering families who may have had their children unjustly removed through the family courts free reviews of their cases, after forensic tests used to detect traces of drugs and alcohol inside people’s systems were called into question. Over 34,000 child custody cases may have been affected.
The Ministry of Justice has offered a court form, which allows families the right to have their cases reviewed free of charge where a toxicology test was carried out. Form C650 , which is called an “Application notice to vary or set aside an order in relation to children (drug and/or alcohol toxicology test after 2010)”, can be used to ask the court to set aside an order made in relation to children, after 2010.
The official statement on the MOJ website sets out families’ rights and explains that there are no fees attached to filing the form.
An investigation is also underway to try to assess the number of cases involved. It will encompass all child protection proceedings, dating back to 2010, in which drug and alcohol testing was carried out by Trimega Laboratories. Around 10,000 criminal cases, which received forensic results from another company called Randox, may also be affected.
Following on from the discovery, Labour MP Diane Abbott called on the government to respond to the allegations surrounding the suggested manipulation of forensic evidence at the Randox and Trimega laboratories in Manchester. Her Urgent Question during a session at the House of Commons, drew in concerned MPs who made several important points about the implications of false test results on child protection cases, which could lead to children being removed from their parents.
Labour MP Chris Elmore, who attended the meeting asked the government to address the issue of unjust removal:
“Children’s social services and judges make decisions on adoption and fostering on the basis of forensic science services. What assurance can the Minister give, especially in relation to adoptions since 2010, that children have not been removed from families on the basis of false forensic information? What conversations has he had with Ministers in the Welsh Government about the failings of the Forensic Science Service with respect to Welsh adoptions?”
Nick Hurd, Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, replied on behalf of the government. Nick confirmed that local authorities had been asked to review all cases that could potentially have been affected, but no details were given as to how this process would be carried out. Taking into account the already burdened and cash strapped environment councils find themselves in, it seems unlikely that this review will take place in any proper way.
Hurd went on to confirm that Robert Goodwill, the current Minister for Children and Families had written to all local authorities asking them to review these cases and that he expected to receive the evidence by the end of this week. We’re not sure that’s a feasible deadline, given the sheer number of cases that may need to be reviewed.
Carol Monaghan MP also offered her thoughts on the impact of poor evidence and the privatisation of core elements of the justice system:
“It is imperative that the public trust forensic science testing and, by extension, criminal and civil justice as a whole. There were warning signs about the firm’s predecessor, Trimega, which had seen children almost taken into care on the basis of erroneous evidence. That major mistake should have been a red flag to the Government, so why were they not alert to the risk presented by the Randox lab, given that its predecessor had such a poor record?
Does the Minister agree that the privatisation of vital elements of the justice system without proper oversight can lead to errors or deliberate tampering, and that the cost both to the individuals affected and to confidence in the justice system outweigh any money saved? Finally, what steps will he take to restore the public’s faith in forensic expert evidence and the justice system as a whole?”
Hurd mentions that the government has already been busy retesting since January of this year in order to try to address the problem.
Other MPs present ask for further reassurances that family cases have not been decided just on a potentially erroneous toxicology test, but of course the government is not in a position to confirm or deny this practice. Those of us who work inside the system know only too well that a positive test is all that’s needed to remove a child, with the future harm threshold used all too often as a vehicle to secure removal.