Some forensic science companies charging up to £800 a day for access to DNA, firearms and other potentially pivotal evidence
Defendants in criminal trials are facing charges of hundreds of pounds before being allowed to see key forensic evidence that may prove their innocence.
Guidance from the Home Office's forensic science regulator, Andrew Rennison,
is being exploited by private firms to generate lucrative sources of income.
The costs are likely to fall ultimately on the government's Legal Aid
Agency, which pays for representation of many defendants who appear in criminal courts.
Concern about a shift in charging practices has been raised by independent forensic scientists, who are increasingly being confronted by demands for payment before being allowed to examine DNA, firearms and other material pivotal to the outcome of criminal cases.
This week a judge at Bradford crown court was reported to have ordered a major provider, LGC Forensics, to supply exhibits and DNA profiling results to defence experts in a case within 48 hours.
The court had been told that the defence expert had been asked to enter into a "credit agreement" before information could be handed over. Judge Jonathan Durham Hall QC was reported to have said: "This is yet another foreseeable consequence, as with the interpreters, of changing a working system to try to effect, presumably, economic gain, to the detriment of the court process."
Changes in charging practices follow the dissolution of the state-backed Forensic Science Services (FSS)
last year. Most material held by the prosecution was previously provided free to the defence during disclosure of evidence.
But in a footnote to guidance issued by the forensic science regulator, providers were told: "It would be reasonable to charge the defence for any use of facilities or equipment, or for the provision of copies of documents in hard copy or electronic form under the disclosure regime."
Several forensic science companies have recently changed billing practices, demanding up to £800 a day, for example, from experts hired by the defence to enable them to have access to firearms held in laboratories.
Mark Webster, a forensic science consultant who predominantly works on defence cases, told the Guardian: "Some of these companies are demanding payment in advance. It's intended to generate a new income stream.
"Charging the defence in this way introduces perverse incentives. If you're a forensic science provider to the police, it encourages you to write vague statements. You then not only get to charge the police for the work you did, but you also make a defence examination obligatory and you get to charge for that as well."
A memo from one large private forensic services provider, seen by the Guardian, notes that new charges will be introduced from 1 July 2013. Copies of documents are to be charged at £99 an hour. The firm did not respond to calls from the Guardian.
The Crown Prosecution Service said it was unaware of changes in disclosure costs. The Ministry of Justice declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for LGC Forensics stressed that requests from the defence to examine forensic material were "very rare".
She added: "When we are asked for information this is usually because a party in the case wants to check the work we have done. They will have to come to our laboratories. They will have to be supervised and that is a cost we have to charge for.
"In the past that would have happened when the FSS existed. Perhaps the cost would previously have been borne by the taxpayer. If requests for information are being asked for by someone else [other than the police] then we need to make sure we can be paid … This is supported by the forensics science regulator guidelines."