Big Brother or crime fighting? DNA evidence under the microscope

DNA database impact on human rightsA proposal to retain DNA samples taken from people who have been arrested but not charged with a crime for up to five years has come under criticism from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The committee has been reviewing the Protection of Freedoms Bill for its compatibility with human rights (see our post: Protections of freedom bill under scrutiny and the Committee’s conclusions). The retention of DNA has long been a hot topic.

On the one hand, many people feel strongly that retention of something as personal as someone’s genetic code should never be done when the person has not been convicted of a crime. As DNA analysis gets more advanced, it can reveal increasingly large amounts of information about a person.

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DNA case analysis: The mystery of the missing purpose

We reported last week the Supreme Court ruling in R (on the application of GC) (FC) (Appellants) v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Respondent) in which the majority found that they could interpret the DNA retention provision in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) in such a way that it would be compatible with article 8 of the ECHR.

Not only that; the Court concluded that such a reading could still promote the statutory purposes: ” Those purposes can be achieved by a proportionate scheme.”
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Feature | DNA Database: another key human rights election issue

DNA database impact on human rightsThe National DNA database has become another key human rights issue in the 2010 Election. It is by far the largest such database in the world, with over 1 in 10 people now on the database. The issue of whether innocent people will have their DNA retained has now become highly politicised.

The Tories have now dropped their opposition to the Crime and Security Bill 2010, which has since become law. They had initially opposed provisions which allowed the police to retain the DNA samples of innocent people for up to 6 years. However, they have pledged if elected to bring in early legislation to ensure the DNA profiles of innocent people accused by minor crimes would not be retained.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary recently accused the Tories of not being tough enough on crime, whilst appearing at a press conference with Linda Bowman, whose daughter was raped and murdered at age 18. Her killer was convicted in 2008 with the help of DNA evidence. Liberty, the civil liberties organisation, commented that Labour had deliberately confused the issue.

The Conservatives pledge in their manifesto to “Reform Labour’s DNA system with the slimmer and more efficient Scottish system as our model” and “Change the rules on the DNA database to allow a large number of innocent people to reclaim their DNA immediately”.

The Liberal Democrats agree they will “Remove innocent people from the police DNA database and stop storing DNA from innocent people and children in the future, too.”

For their part, Labour say they will “ensure that the most serious offenders are added to the database no matter where or when they were convicted – and retain for six years the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted.”

It is probably no coincidence that the criticism of the Tory policy coincides with the Government’s recent concession to strong criticism from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

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