This was the question posed by Dr Ryan Blumenthal, Senior Specialist at Forensic Pathology Services, Pretoria, at the beginning of his presentation Towards the Establishment of a Forensic Science Society in South Africa during the recent LMC.
The answer, if one wants to benefit from the result, such as harvest fruit, enjoy the shade or use the wood is “20 years ago”! The next best time to plant a tree would be right now.
Dr Blumenthal was advocating for an umbrella organisation that would specifically look after the interests and needs of Forensic Scientists; those scientists dealing with toxicology, firearms, trace evidence, arson and fire investigations, tool marks and a host of other sciences that support crime-scene investigations. In the USA there are eleven recognised fields in Forensic Science. The model for the proposal is based on a National Research document in the United States entitled: Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward.
Recent high-profile medico-legal cases in South Africa have highlighted the current weaknesses in our system. Therefore, such a society is not a nice-to-have, but rather an absolute requirement. Currently, most of the forensic science falls under the jurisdiction of the police, or in some cases, private laboratories. Ideally, the body governing these matters should be independent.
In order to give such an organisation credibility and power, there needs to be government buy-in, legislation and government funding. The society would have to set codes of conduct, training requirements, and standards for processing evidence and reporting it. The society would have to be SANAS accredited and mandatory registration for all forensic scientists would be essential.
It was even suggested that the term “society” should rather be “academy” because the former allow membership for all and sundry, whereas the latter is restricted to accredited and registered individuals.
In a parallel development, discussed at a recent Round Table Forum, Prof. Lorna Martin (HoD Clinical Laboratory Service, Division of Forensic Medicine, UCT) and Ms Vonita Thompson (Director: Forensic Pathology Services) spoke about a new Forensic Pathology Institute to replace the ageing Salt River Forensic Pathology Laboratories. The new institute would be a state-of-the-art facility, housing many of the forensic sciences that are currently scattered around Cape Town. The vision is to build the institute in 2015/6, providing new autopsy halls, medical imaging suites, offices, laboratories and research space.