State forensic scientists are dealing with a five-month backlog in analysing drugs for criminal investigations owing to a large rise in the number and complexity of cases.
Forensic Science Ireland (FSI), which analyses drugs and forensic evidence for gardaí, now has a caseload “far in excess of pre-pandemic levels”.
Delays in analysing drugs have caused frustrations in legal circles as they can mean suspects having to spend longer in custody before going to trial.
Judge Colm Roberts, who sits on Cork District Court, has repeatedly raised the issue and recently received a letter from FSI promising improvements.
Earlier this year, Longford District Court heard it can take between 14 and 18 months to get a drugs analysis certificate from FSI, and that this may result in some cases being struck out.
Since 2018, cases referred to FSI’s laboratory for analysis have increased by 40 per cent. Last year, more than 10,000 drugs cases were submitted by gardaí for analysis, according to figures provided to The Irish Times.
Forensic cases, which include DNA and fingerprint analysis, have increased by 83 per cent during the same period. Last year, FSI issued 23,542 reports regarding forensic cases.
FSI official Nicola Byrne said the complexity involved in forensic investigations is also “far greater” than in previous years. She said the current backlog for drug analysis is the equivalent of about “five months of FSI’s annual reported drugs case volume” or 3,527 cases in total.
It is normal for a working forensic lab to have a backlog of cases, she said. Drugs and forensic cases are assessed and prioritised on a weekly basis based on the type of offence involved and the scheduled court date, Ms Byrne said.
Part of the reason for the large increase in cases is the FSI taking over responsibility for fingerprinting, and document and handwriting analysis from the Garda Technical Bureau. An expansion in the range of DNA and biological analysis services it offers has also had an impact.
However, Ms Byrne said efforts to reduce the backlog are bearing fruit as a result of increased staffing and “refurbishments of laboratory space aimed at increasing drugs analysis capacity”. Since 2021, the backlog for drugs cases has fallen by 43 per cent.
FSI said it is still able to complete forensic analysis in time for scheduled court hearings, once it receives sufficient notice. It has also agreed a protocol with An Garda Síochána which ensures the “most urgent and important cases” receive priority. In urgent cases, such as when a suspect is in custody, scientists can provide a verbal report to gardaí within 24 hours.
The agency is currently in the process of moving to a modern facility in Backweston, Co Kildare, which cost about €100 million to build. In the meantime, it is still using the cramped facilities located at the back of Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.
As well as being deemed far too old and small to operate as a modern forensics lab, the building has been plagued by mice infestations in recent years.