487. Deputy Patricia Ryan asked the Minister for Justice if her attention has been drawn to delays in the State’s forensic laboratories; her plans to address same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27608/21]
Minister for Justice (Deputy Heather Humphreys): As the Deputy will be aware, Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) is an office of the Department of Justice and provides a forensic analytical service to the criminal justice system. As an essential service, FSI have remained open throughout all stages of Covid-19 restrictions, with the key objective of providing a sustainable service while keeping their staff safe. In December 2019, the fingerprints and documents & handwriting services of the Garda Technical Bureau were transferred to FSI.
FSI reported on close to 22,000 investigations in 2020, including almost 6,000 from fingerprints and documents & handwriting. This represents an increase of 36% in reported cases compared to 2019. FSI also expanded its intelligence services over the course of the year. FSI supported the validation and preparations for fingerprint exchange as part of the Schengen Information System (SIS) in 2020. Ireland also currently exchanges fingerprint data with Austria, Romania and the Czech Republic under the Prüm agreement. FSI expanded connectivity for Prüm DNA Exchanges, with 8 countries now actively exchanging material (Austria, Latvia, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Slovakia, Poland, Sweden and Estonia) with further expansions planned for 2021.
I understand that FSI also completed a comprehensive drugs quantification trend reports for the previous 4 years (2016 – 2019) on heroin, cocaine and amphetamine and shared these insights with stakeholders in An Garda Síochána and the Department of Health. FSI is also the custodian of the national DNA database. At the end of 2020 there were close to 50,000 DNA profiles on the national DNA database. The number of reference profiles increased by 8,631 in 2020 and the number of crime-scene profiles increased by 1,555. The impact of the database has also increased over time, with 47% of uploaded crime-stains now linked to a person.
2020 was the first year where the fingerprints and documents and handwriting services have been provided by FSI. The integration of these services as well as the growth in demand for drugs and DNA investigates have led to a 74% increase in case submissions when compared to 2018. For 2020 alone, drugs & toxicology submissions increased by 26% and more specifically, complex case submissions (related to possession with intent to supply, or cultivation) increased by 34%.
In 2020, approximately 29,000 cases were submitted to FSI and reports were issued in 22,000 cases. FSI is working to address the capacity issues relating to the increased demand for their services in a number of ways.
FSI works with its principal service user, An Garda Síochána, to ensure that cases where analysis is urgently required are prioritised. FSI prioritised the more complex drug submissions and reported close to the same number of such cases as in 2019, despite the pandemic. They have also supported all urgent drugs cases (typically custody cases) within the 24-hour timeframe agreed with An Garda Síochána, despite a significant increase in demand (31% on 2019). FSI increased the number of DNA case reports by 24% in 2020 and reported on all Body Identifications within the agreed timeframe, despite a significant increase (23% on 2019).
I can inform the Deputy that FSI staffing has increased significantly in recent years and further recruitment is underway. Since December 2018, 30 additional scientists have been recruited to FSI bringing the current staff level to 197.
In March 2020, the Government approved the signing of a contract for the construction of a purpose built forensic laboratory at Backweston, Co. Kildare and construction commenced immediately. The building is scheduled for completion in the Summer of 2022. This new facility will allow FSI to further increase capacity and improve the service it offers to the criminal justice system.