‘Quality requires maintenance’

For the last seven-and-a-half years, Eric Bakker has overseen the growth of the NRGD as a register and its development as an organisation for forensic quality. On 1 January 2024, he will step down as chair of the Board. This is an occasion to take stock, in the presence of former Chief Public Prosecutor Bob Steensma, who himself stepped down earlier this year as a Board member on behalf of the Public Prosecution Service.

‘Of course, as a criminal court judge, I already knew the NRGD. Then I read in expert reports, for example, that someone in the NRGD was registered under a particular number. I had no idea what lay behind that. The tasks involved, the discussions about forensic requirements or the move towards recognition that we are making now, all that is not visible to many people. But the NRGD is so much more than just a box of index cards with the names of experts.’

In recent times, the NRGD has been called on in other matters

‘Following on from the register of experts, it involves the quality of expertise in the criminal justice system. This is close to our heart and we encourage it in our contacts with the underlying organisations. And that has resulted, for example, in the recognition of the pro Justitia study programme of the Netherlands Institute of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology (NIFP), or the basic course of the Dutch Association for Medical Specialist Reporting (NVMSR). We go a step further with the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), by possibly also recognising their 5 year repeat examinations. A reward for organisations that have their quality in good order and a gain for the experts who are therefore not obliged to do an exam twice. Other matters have nearly been dealt with, such as the use of the register in administrative and civil law. I’ve been involved with that from the beginning and I would have liked to have completed it myself. A concrete proposal is now with the Ministry, supported by the judicial system itself. Once the decision in principle has been taken, we will be able to implement it.’

Has your time as chair changed your view of the world of forensics?

‘I have great respect for scientific innovations. For the technical possibilities and the drive and commitment of the people who are active in these areas. And I also look at this as a judge: how can all this expertise be contained in a file, can I follow everything and can it be used by the judicial system? For this reason, we have to make demands on the expert. It can have major consequences for a suspect if we take a wrong turn somewhere.

At the same time, we’re looking at alternative assessment methods. Examples could be an oral examination or a case for which a person would have to explain what technical methods they would use. We’re going to study this for Digital Forensics (DFO). When the NRGD began, everyone wrote reports. That’s now changing. If a digital expert checks whether a computer system has a leak, they say: “Yes, there’s a leak and if you make this change, you can remedy it.” In that case, you don’t have a 20-page report for the judge that we can use to assess whether a person’s expertise is up to scratch.

With digital forensics and artificial intelligence (AI), you see the shift happening before your eyes. Experts are needed who can see whether a video is real or whether it has been manipulated. It’s complex to keep up-to-date with such things. Developments are happening at lightning speed and they have consequences for the way you organise the deployment of expertise. When that kind of technology becomes commonplace and everyone can cut and paste, it’s great if the NFI makes technology available under specific conditions to other parties, such as the police, so that they can check this. That in turn frees up capacity at the NFI for further innovation and for complex cases. But as a criminal court judge, I also think it’s important for me to gain an impression of the person who has written the report. What training they have had and what kind of investigation has been carried out. This form of transparency also contributes to the quality of the judicial system.’

The NRGD came into being as a response to miscarriages of justice. Have we learned enough from the past?

‘There are still miscarriages of justice, although I have the impression that they’re perceived as less shocking than at the time of the Schiedam park murder. But investigations into miscarriages of justice continue to be important, to see what went wrong and whether things are different now. It’s often criminal cases from years ago that are involved. In that case, you can say: “That was then and now we deal with cases differently.” But a judge cannot directly infer that from a file or police report. To some extent, it’s therefore not visible whether an outdated method has been replaced and what the new approach is. I’d like us to make that somewhat more transparent, for example through information on the level of the person who is providing the report. Then you can say as judge: “This factual report comes too close to interpretation”. Then you can discuss it with each other. That would be a great development. And you can make a gradual start, with a pilot project dealing with the most high-risk areas. Something like that takes time, but it would be an addition to what we do.’

Time for a parting gift: what do you wish for the NRGD?

‘We’re a small player. We work on the side of quality improvement, which does not automatically have the full attention of many parties or count as the highest priority. At times, this leads to some friction in our dealings with system partners. In a way, this is inevitable. But for the NRGD, I wish that we will not have to keep waiting for the entire field to embrace our ideas and to urge the Ministry to give us more tasks or powers. There will come a time when the Ministry will decide: “This is necessary; that is not.” If the NRGD always has to fight over that itself with the consent of all system parties, development will stagnate. So, that’s where the Ministry will also have to shoulder its responsibility, by allowing us to do more if it is deemed useful.

In the forensic field, we’ve participated a few times in an exercise to identify new developments, which is carried out every three years. The underlying question was what innovations the forensic field would be facing and what consequences they might have for the criminal justice system. In the first instance, this effort to make an inventory of developments focused on the question of what the NFI should then be able to do. Following on from this, attention turned to the police. For example, what does it mean for an organisation if it has to prepare for the emergence of AI? This is also an important discussion for the NRGD, to which we are happy to contribute. Through our contacts with individual experts and assessors, we can pick up signals in time, consider any effects on forensic quality and see how we can help safeguard and strengthen quality.

I think that in my contacts with various organisations, I was able to provide some calm. I was able to open some doors, or smooth some things over, so that the NRGD was granted a bit more goodwill from various quarters. And yes, I did push a bit and sometimes gave encouragement to go beyond the status quo. The same applies to any expansion of our field of work. I hope we can get more volume and make the composition of the Board more flexible. Many issues still await us because of all the technical developments. In the field of AI, but also with regard to the use of deep fakes in the provision of news and information. This development is happening very fast, so we also have to take great care to update the requirements we place on expertise. But that also makes it so enjoyable. We’re active in so many different areas, with a small team of highly motivated people, who do good work and are a very good support to the Board and to me. They’re led by a director who, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, even in the difficult pandemic period, ensured that we kept working at a high level and that the Board was very well supported. This is only possible thanks to that backup. That’s worth its weight in gold and I will certainly miss it. We as a Board come flying in from time to time, so to speak. And those who sit on the Board are not always the easiest of people.’

Bob Steensma: ‘No, certainly not! But Eric sees ways of managing heated discussions on areas where opinions are quite divided, and guiding them in the right direction. We’ve worked, but also laughed a lot. We’ve really never left a meeting angry.’