The Baltic Register of Forensic Science Experts
By Raimonds Apinis
State Forensic Science Bureau of Latvia — http://www.vteb.gov.lv/
The co-operation of the Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – in the field of forensic science serves as a good example of how countries can benefit from working together for a common goal. Forensic science institutes of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have always been very active in exchange of knowledge and experience, as well as in implementation of EU funded projects.
In 2016 the State Forensic Science Bureau of Latvia (hereafter – SFSB) started implementation of the project “Find a Forensic Expert” co-funded by the Justice programme of the European Union. The aim of the project was to create a register of forensic science experts covering Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. As the project partners forensic institutes from Estonia and Lithuania were enlisted – Estonian Forensic Science Institute, Forensic Science Centre of Lithuania and Lithuanian Police Forensic Science Centre.
Before the project, Latvia was the only one of the Baltic countries having its own register of forensic science experts, therefore it is not a mere chance that the idea of a Baltic expert register came from Latvia and its implementation was based primarily on Latvia’s experience. Since there where no expert registers in Estonia and Lithuania, it was a unique chance to develop a new IT solution based on Latvian experience that could be used for all the three countries. In addition, development of one software package for all the three countries allowed to economize financial resources and avoid technological risks that could arise if countries had been using different IT systems.
It is worth mentioning that although Latvian judicial and law enforcement community has been using the Latvian register of forensic experts for decades, the challenge was to convince Lithuanians and Estonians about the benefits of having such a register in their own countries.
SFSB achieved it by pointing out positive impact of having an expert register, particularly:
- the forensic expert register is a source of information that allows to find a necessary type of forensic examination, a forensic laboratory or a forensic expert faster and in a more convenient way, therefore, speeding up investigation and court proceedings. Questions related to choosing of a forensic examination and appointing of a forensic expert are solved easily without any need to request additional information.
- the forensic expert register has a crucial role to play in order to achieve that a forensic expert report made in one country is equally acknowledged as a valid piece of evidence in another country. The register allows to assure that the forensic science expert in question has a right to perform forensic examination in a particular field in its own country. In addition, it allows to ensure that the expert’s certificate is still valid, the expert is not forbidden from performing forensic examinations by national authorities. If the expert opinion is delivered by a person not having forensic expert rights in a given field, such expert opinion cannot be considered as legal. Therefore, it is necessary to check forensic expert’s credentials. The register significantly speeds up the process.
- the forensic expert register itself cannot solve problems that may arise with having different legislations, practices and languages but nevertheless it is a reliable source of information about forensic experts authorized to perform forensic examinations in their respective country; if the competence of a forensic expert is acknowledged in one country, there would be no reasons why authorities of another country should not trust it.
- the EU initiatives such us a European Forensic Science Area clearly support ideas towards cross-border use of forensic science services, the forensic expert register is a significant step towards achieving it;
- increasing accreditation of EU forensic science laboratories according to the ISO IEC 17025:2005 standard “General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories” fostered by the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes helps to ensure that common quality standards and principles are observed by forensic institutes across Europe, ensuring quality that can be trusted even outside the borders of a given country.
Forensic science work is organized differently in each country, there are differences in legislation. Therefore, one of the greatest challenges of the project was to provide a common framework that would be acceptable and suitable for all the three countries. Forensic Science in Estonia is centralized in one institution – Estonian Forensic Science Institute (EKEI). Situation in Latvia and Lithuania is different – there are several forensic science institutions in both countries. All the Baltic countries have both state and private forensic experts. State forensic experts are employed by state forensic institutions, private experts provide forensic services as their business. There are similarities and differences in terms of training and certification of experts. In Latvia certification of forensic experts are performed by the Council of Forensic Science Experts, which is a supervising institution. In Estonia and Lithuania certification of forensic experts are performed by forensic institutions themselves. In Latvia forensic expert’s certificate is limited to five years and must be renewed after expiration of this period, similar situation is in Lithuania. In Estonia, there is no expiration date for expert certificates. One of the key issues that had to be solved in the project was the classification of forensic examinations – each country has its own types of forensic examinations, some of them clearly match, e.g. handwriting examination is the same in all countries, but significant part of examinations have their differences that had to be considered in order to preserve consistency and integrity of information and provide search possibilities in all the three countries, eliminating possible misunderstandings that could easily happen if the same title were to be used for different examinations.
Therefore, its was decided to create a unified classification of forensic examinations that would include all the types of forensic examinations performed in all the three countries. The next step was to link examinations performed in each country with the appropriate examination titles in the unified classification. In this way a unique map of mutually linked examinations was made, connecting Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian examinations via the unified classification.
Considering possible technical solutions for the Baltic Register, it was decided in favour of a decentralized solution – there is no centralized infrastructure, information is not kept in one data centre. There is no centralized management. The Baltic Register consists of three independent national registers or interfaces, which are linked together but maintained independently. Each country is responsible for maintenance of its own register and data. National data is not stored outside of the country. There is no need for centralized funding either – each country has to cover maintenance of its own register; no additional costs are required. The only centralized element is the unified classification of forensic examinations, it functions as a linking element between all the three interfaces, therefore it can only be changed upon agreement of all the three countries. There is no mandatory information that must be published, instead each country decides on its own what to include in its register.
Latvian interface (or register) is accessible in https://eksperti.ta.gov.lv, Estonian interface (or register) in https://kohtuekspert.just.ee and Lithuanian interface (or register) in https://ekspertai.ltec.lt. All national interfaces provide access to identical information about forensic experts in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. It is possible to search for forensic experts in a particular country, for example in Latvia, or to search for forensic experts in all the Baltic countries at once. All three interfaces and are available in a national language (Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian) and in English as well. Since the information on forensic experts is not collected by some third party but instead it is provided directly by the countries themselves it is reliable and can be trusted.
The Baltic Register of Forensic Science Experts has been in operation for one year already, so there are some conclusions and observations:
- there is a demand for forensic examination services outside of our countries; the Baltic Register has speeded-up the process of finding a forensic expert in a neighbouring country;
- the pool of forensic experts is always limited in every country, especially in small countries as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, therefore co-operation in forensic science makes sense;
- there are types of forensic examinations that are available only in one of the Baltic countries, so there is a potential for c-operation in those fields;
- legislation is different in every country, nevertheless the science behind forensic examinations is always the same, there are almost no differences in terms of forensic examination methods or equipment used, so it can be safely concluded that forensic science is transferable across borders.
SFSB believes that other countries have a lot to learn and benefit from the experience of the Baltic countries. The software developed fort the Register is available for any country willing to use it to create its own register of forensic experts. There is a room for further development and c-operation in forensic science.