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Parliament demands urgent action on DNA testing backlog

Backlog increased from 117,000 in December to close to 173,000 this week, police portfolio committee hears

The backlog at the National Forensic Science Laboratory stands at close to 173,000 cases. Stock photo.
The backlog at the National Forensic Science Laboratory stands at close to 173,000 cases. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Felipe Caparros Cruz

Parliament wants urgent solutions to the dysfunctional National Forensic Science Laboratories (NFSL), and has tasked the newly-appointed National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board with fixing the mess.

This comes as parliament’s police portfolio committee was told the DNA testing backlog increased from 117,000 in December to close to 173,000 this week.

Committee chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson said the board must ensure permanent solutions were found to many long-standing challenges regarding DNA backlogs.

Joemat-Pettersson said it was unacceptable that the NFSL has a backlog of more than 172,000 cases.

She said for the past two years the committee had highlighted concerns about the backlog, which has a direct impact on the entire criminal justice value chain.

Among the challenges the committee had raised was the NFSL’s ineffective supply chain management systems and processes, leading to protracted delays in the procurement of buccal sample kits. Another challenge is the shortage of buccal sample kits at police stations and service delivery points, leading to a growing DNA casework backlog, particularly in gender-based violence (GBV) cases.

Additional challenges arise from delays in the amendment of the DNA Act and IT challenges caused by an ongoing legal dispute.

Police minister Bheki Cele recently appointed 10 board members to the NFSL.

Head of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) Maj-Gen Edward Ngokha confirmed to the committee that the DNA backlog stood at 172,787 cases.

“The fight against the scourge of GBV is compromised by the inability of the FSL to timeously conclude their analysis. The fight against GBV requires a FSL functioning optimally to ensure prosecutions are scientific, evidence-based and timely,” Joemat-Pettersson said.

Dr Rineé Pretorius, spokesperson for pressure group Action Society, said they were worried the ongoing problem would bring SA’s justice system to its knees as hundreds of thousands of criminals are roaming free, and probably reoffending, due to DNA evidence not being able to be presented in court.

“With no progress seen at the FSL since reporting its turnaround strategy to the committee in November 2020, Action Society is concerned thousands of pending rape cases will never be submitted to court because of the compounding backlog at laboratories,” Pretorius said.

Pretorius raised a concern that the evidence tracking system for the entire NFSL has not been reinstituted due to an impasse between the police and Forensic Data Analysts (FDA).

“This property control and exhibit management system (PCEM) impacts the processing of all evidence, not just DNA,” Pretorius said.

The pressure group urged government to get the wheels of justice turning again by considering utilising resources of private laboratories in addition to the two state FSLs to assist with the processing of the backlog.

Action Society has called on the Cele to fast-track the finalisation of the three outstanding DNA contracts which will, at the very least, ensure the DNA samples currently in the backlog will begin to be processed.

In December, national police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo confirmed the police have a huge backlog, with rape cases accounting for 60% to 70% of it. Murder cases make up a big chunk of the remaining 30%.

He attributed the backlog to a shortage of test kits and testing strips, maintenance of sensitive equipment, shortages of consumables and reagent and financial constraints.

He said procurement of contracts for the maintenance of sensitive robotics and other specialised equipment is at an advanced stage.


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