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NI forensics team is first to get national quality mark

Northern Ireland’s forensics service has beaten rivals to be the first lab to gain a national quality accreditation.

A crucial quality mark has been gained by the Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) team ensuring sample integrity.

The service, which carries out analysis of toxicology samples, is the first to sign the declaration that it complies with LAB 51 UKAS Accreditation of Laboratories Performing Analysis of Toxicology Samples.

The standard sets out how the requirements of quality processes ISO/IEC 17025, ISO 15189, ILAC G19 and UKAS must be applied to organisations undertaking testing for drugs and drug metabolites in blood, urine, hair and oral fluids.

The declaration covers issues such as calibration and traceability which are crucial for samples that must be presented in court.

Formal lab standards have been upgraded across the UK after questions were raised over the integrity of reported toxicology data - none of which involved FSNI.

Some cases were withdrawn after labs confirmed sample integrity had been compromised creating a huge case backlog and prosecutions being abandoned.

LAB51 covers all processes and procedures carried out from the moment the sample arrives at FSNI to when the finished report is issued. This includes things like who brought the sample, how it was stored and what temperature it was kept at.

It’s a big achievement for the service which has Northern Ireland’s justice and health services as its main clients.

The State Pathologist, Dr James Lyness and his team carry out approximately 1,500 post mortems per year, providing a vital service to the NI Justice system.  

FSNI employs approximately 200 staff, all civil servants, of whom approximately 65% are scientists directly involved with casework.

They work closely with the Coroner’s Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Approximately 90% of work is from the Police Service of Northern Ireland reflecting trends in local crime.

Support is also given to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the State Pathologist, the HRMC and other investigative authorities.

Jane Bridges, a Higher Scientific Officer in the Analytical Services Team (AST), said:  “As FSNI receives samples from a number of stakeholders and customers, e.g. State Pathology and the PSNI, this was a complex exercise. It required input from many different sections and individuals throughout FSNI including both scientific and administrative staff. The completion of this gap analysis took several months of meticulous, hard work.”

Overhauling procedures was triggered by a deadline; FSNI first heard about the Lab 51 accreditation in June 2021 and were informed that we would be assessed against their next inspection in September 2021.

Jane Bridges said: “This was a mammoth task but all the staff involved rose to the challenge and gave it their all. We were informed by the UKAS assessor that FSNI was the first lab in the UK to sign an initial declaration confirming compliance with Lab 51. This is testament to the hard work and dedication of the staff at FSNI.”

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