News24

Forensic lab backlogs: 6 years

2010-02-08 18:10

Cape Town - The Democratic Alliance on Monday urged the police ministry to tackle crippling backlogs at the Forensic Chemistry Laboratories (FCLs) after the Auditor General found backlogs resulted in abandoned court cases.

A report by the AG completed in November 2009 blamed a lack of staff, low staff morale, a "total disregard" for occupational safety laws and a lack of back-up power resulting in spoiled samples for backlogs of several years that set back the fight against crime.

"These factors have resulted in backlogs that have a negative impact on the criminal justice system and on the broader public in the country," the report concluded.

The document said a lack of "leadership" and oversight on the part of the national department of health were among the root causes for the crisis at the FCLs.

It said the department listed making the FCLs accredited laboratories as a top priority years ago but this had still not happened and had on occasion resulted in courts refusing to accept their results.

On staff shortages, the report pointed out that laboratories in Pretoria and Johannesburg both had a vacancy rate of 20% for senior staff last year.

In Pretoria, it gave rise to a situation where there were no analysts dedicated to working in the blood alcohol testing section, whose work then had to be passed on to other sections, worsening backlogs. 

4 574 cases outstanding

Johannesburg recorded a constantly rising backlog in toxicology work, with the number of outstanding cases totalling 4 574 in 2009, compared to 328 in 2000.

The report found that in August 2009 the backlog in routine toxicology cases in Johannesburg stretched back six years, five years in Cape Town and four years in Pretoria.

"As a result of such long delays, cases have been withdrawn from court," the report said, adding that in Johannesburg the root cause for the backlog was "poor productivity".

The report also noted that the facilities in Johannesburg, which were built in 1925, and in Pretoria did not conform to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

There was no proper access control at the facilities "as doors were mostly kept open, with the additional risk of tampering with samples", it added.

The report also suggested problems with the way police handled samples, pointing out that 27% of all samples sent to laboratories by police in KwaZulu-Natal were rejected as the samples had not been correctly collected or stored.

DA police spokesperson Dianne Kohler Barnard said Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had undertaken to give attention to the findings of the report but accused the police ministry of leaving broader problems at forensic laboratories "chronically unchecked".

"Backlogs in our laboratories place severe strain on police investigations and delay court cases, and thus constitute one of the most serious impediments to a properly functioning justice system," Kohler Barnard said.