Fears mount that forensic lab backlog could derail drugs prosecutions

Surge in demand follows ‘remarkable’ rise in drug seizures in 2020 and preceding years

Drug seizures increased to record levels last year and the trend has continued in recent months. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Drug seizures increased to record levels last year and the trend has continued in recent months. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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A “remarkable” increase in drug seizures has created a backlog of 6,000 samples at Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) and gardaí are concerned that this could soon begin to derail drugs prosecutions.

Demand for the services of FSI, which provides the Garda with forensic and technical analysis, has increased with the drug trade having grown to levels last seen at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom. The cases on hand would take about nine months to analyse.

Seizures increased to record levels last year and the trend has continued in recent months. Some €36.5 million of drugs was seized by the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau last year, with a further €28 million discovered in the first four months of this year.

Gardaí said a significant amount of time and energy was now required to secure forensic certification in drug cases. In summary prosecutions, which do not involve a jury and apply in most drug cases, gardaí must commence a prosecution against a suspect within six months of an offence.

Lapse

Garda sources said if the delays in securing documents for drug cases worsened even marginally, many suspects could avoid prosecution because their cases would lapse. They were concerned this scenario was imminent because of the continued rise in drug seizures.

However, despite the spike in demand, when suspects are in custody the samples of drugs in their cases are still being analysed within 24 hours. Other priority cases are also being fast-tracked.

Overall, the number of submissions by the Garda to FSI for analysis last year reached 28,916 including drugs, DNA for sexual offence cases and other crimes, fingerprints and handwriting samples. This was 54 per cent higher than in 2019 and up 74 per cent on 2018.

Some 13,814 drugs and toxicology cases were submitted by the Garda to FSI for analysis last year, up from 10,480 cases submitted in 2019. The increase is partly due to the fact that services previously provided by Garda technical experts were taken over by FSI last year.

‘Remarkable’ increase

FSI director general Chris Enright told The Irish Times the growth in the volume of drug submissions had been “remarkable”.

“The technologies and capabilities have developed significantly over the last five years and demand across all case types has grown as a result.”

In reply to questions about the backlog, the Department of Justice said it was common across Europe that national forensic labs would be required to identify “important cases” in the drugs area and commit their resources accordingly.

While capacity within FSI was being reviewed and staff were being added, “further additional capacity” would be created when a new State forensic laboratory in Backweston, Co Kildare, was constructed.

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