File Photo by Michael Walker
File Photo by Michael Walker

Sex crime forensics backlog shambles

By Lyse Comins, Mayibongwe Maqhina Time of article published Nov 12, 2020

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Durban – VICTIMS of sexual crimes could be denied justice after it emerged that the National Forensic Science Laboratory is dealing with a backlog of tens of thousands of cases, which is causing delays in bringing perpetrators to book.

Civil rights group Action Society estimated that the DNA analysis backlog at the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratories (FSL) was in the region of 125 000 cases, of which 92% are related to sexual assault offences.

The rights group claimed the backlog was due to a lack of consumables and maintenance of sensitive equipment, and was calling for the services to be outsourced to private laboratories.

The group’s concerns preceded a report on the state of the FSL tabled at a parliamentary portfolio committee on police meeting attended by SAPS top brass and Police Minister Bheki Cele yesterday.

The meeting revealed there were 131 509 unregistered exhibit cases and 39 566 exhibits being processed at the head office.

Addressing the committee, divisional commissioner Lieutenant-General Michael Mothlala, highlighted the department’s turnaround strategy to deal with the laboratory services backlog.

He said R250m had been allocated to prioritise procurement of critical consumables, including servicing and maintenance of equipment. He said 175 promotion posts were advertised and 69 re-enlistment applications were being considered to add capacity to forensic services.

Head of SAPS FSL, Major-General Edward Ngokha, said the forensic science laboratory services had faced insufficient funding and instability at the management level.

Ngokha said FSL had also experienced a high volume of DNA sample submissions, which had increased the workload. He told MPs there were challenges with consumables procurement and servicing of equipment to perform analysis.

However, he said funding certificates had now been submitted to the supply chain management division to activate procurement processes. He added that load shedding and the Covid-19 pandemic had added to its operational woes.

He said staff would be working overtime to clear the backlog over the next five months.

However, DA MP Andrew Whitfield said the situation was unacceptable.

“I am not entirely convinced of a turnaround based on this plan,” Whitfield said.

“We need to understand which contracts were awarded and which were not awarded.

“It appears that we allowed contracts to lapse. We have dysfunctional contract management,” he said.

Cele said the administration of contracts had been terrible, but the problem was being resolved. “It has been a generic problem when it comes to the SAPS, hence we have a new head of supply chain management who we believe will rid us of the problems,” he said.

Cele pleaded with MPs not to be pessimistic about the turnaround plan.

“Members should not predict doomsday … that these things can’t happen. Let’s be judged and monitored on figures and time frames we put here, rather than saying it won’t happen,” he said.

Action Society spokesperson Dalene Gouws called for the FSL to outsource services to private laboratories.

“It is scandalous that our government is not utilising the most powerful weapons they have to combat crimes against children, and gender-based violence. The time has come to clean up their offices and get rid of ineffective officials. Legislation on procurement and employment should no longer affect the lives of vulnerable citizens.

“If we cannot solve crimes by utilising science due to contractual or procurement issues, we as the citizens are left to our own devices,” Gouws said.

She added that the group was lobbying for the establishment of a special sexual offences court for more effective prosecution of perpetrators.

Child rights expert and former director of Childline, Joan van Niekerk, said she was not surprised by the backlog as the forensic laboratory had a poor track record over the past 20 years.

“Long delays in processing DNA hold up many cases, and children are left waiting for cases to be heard in court. It is no wonder that we have so many cases withdrawn as parents and children simply give up,” Van Niekerk said.

She said that conviction rate figures were also inaccurate.

“The figures do not include those that are constantly remanded, waiting for further evidence to be collected or processed, or cases withdrawn because there is no certainty of a successful prosecution. What these figures reflect is less than the tip of the iceberg of reported cases. When it comes to young children who cannot withstand the process of cross-examination, the situation is even more dire, offenders can carry on with relative impunity,” she said.

She said dealing with the justice system resulted in secondary trauma to children and caregivers.

“When one tries to rock the system to speed up the process, one often gets labelled as difficult. Offenders are often left in the community or released back into the community despite legislation regarding bail,” Van Niekerk said.

The Mercury

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