Retaining DNA samples of innocents breaches human rights

04 December 2008

The DNA profiles of roughly 850,000 innocent people should be taken off the National DNA Database (NDNAD) following a European Court of Human Rights judgment today said Liberty. Two Britons whose DNA was retained by police brought the legal challenge, claiming that their inclusion on the NDNAD continued to cast suspicion on them after they had been cleared of any wrong-doing.

Liberty welcomed the decision, which will require the UK Government to reconsider its policies under which the DNA of innocent individuals (those who have not been charged or cautioned) is permanently retained by police.

Last month the Home Office revealed that 2,324,879 recorded criminals (40 percent) in England and Wales did not actually have a DNA sample held on the NDNAD. At the same time, the Home Office reported that 857,366 innocent individuals’ profiles are currently held on the NDNAD. [1]

Liberty’s Director Shami Chakrabarti said:

“This is one of the most strongly worded judgments that Liberty has ever seen from the Court of Human Rights. That Court has used human rights principles and common sense to deliver the privacy protection of innocent people that the British Government has shamefully failed to deliver.”

The Home Office is expected to hold a consultation about the retention of DNA following today’s judgment. The judgment would not have affected the outcome of any of the recent, high profile, convictions where DNA evidence has been a significant factor.

Liberty’s Legal Officer Anna Fairclough said:

"Forty percent of Britain's criminals are not on this database, but hundreds of thousands of innocent people are. Sweeping up the innocent with the guilty does not help fight crime. The Court of Human Rights has protected the privacy of British people so poorly let down by our own government."

Key passages of Grand Chamber Judgment of S and Marper v the United Kingdom include:

● The Court was struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales. In particular, the data in question could be retained irrespective of the nature or gravity of the offence with which the individual was originally suspected or of the age of the suspected offender; the retention was not time-limited; and there existed only limited possibilities for an acquitted individual to have the data removed from the nationwide database or to have the materials destroyed.

● The Court expressed a particular concern at the risk of stigmitisation, stemming from the fact that persons in the position of the applicants, who had not been convicted of any offence and were entitled to the presumption of innocence, were treated in the same way as convicted persons. It was true that the retention of the applicants’ private data could not be equated with the voicing of suspicions. Nonetheless, their perception that they were not being treated as innocent was heightened by the fact that their data were retained indefinitely in the same way as the data of convicted persons, while the data of those who had never been suspected of an offence were required to be destroyed.

● It observed that the protection afforded by Article 8 of the Convention would be unacceptably weakened if the use of modern scientific techniques in the criminal justice system were allowed at any cost and without carefully balancing the potential benefits of the extensive use of such techniques against important private life interests. Any State claiming a pioneer role in the development of new technologies bore special responsibility for striking the right balance in this regard.

● In the Court’s view, the capacity of DNA profiles to provide a means of identifying genetic relationships between individuals was in itself sufficient to conclude that their retention interfered with the right to the private life of those individuals. The possibility created by DNA profiles for drawing inferences about ethnic origin made their retention all the more sensitive and susceptible of affecting the right to private life. The Court concluded that the retention of both cellular samples and DNA profiles amounted to an interference with the applicants’ right to respect for their private lives, within the meaning of Article 8.1 of the Convention.

Contact: Liberty Press Office on 0207 378 3656 or 0797 3 831 128

Notes to Editors:

Background on S and Marper v United Kingdom

1. Liberty agrees that a DNA database can be a valuable crime detection tool. However, repeated legislative changes have rolled out retention policy by stealth so that anyone arrested for even very minor offences can have their DNA held for the rest of their life, even if they have been mistakenly arrested. DNA is relevant only to a small number of serious offences, mainly involving sexual assault or violence. Liberty believes that the correct and proportionate approach to the National DNA Database would be based on allowing retention of DNA for those convicted or cautioned of these types of serious offence. This approach is the one adopted by nearly every EU and other comparable state.

2. S & Marper v United Kingdom, heard in the European Court of Human Rights on 27 February 2008, establishes if the automatic retention of DNA samples, profiles and fingerprints from those who are not convicted of any offence is a breach of the right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government has repeatedly said it has no plans to create a universal database because it does not think the population is ready for the civil liberties implications of that. Liberty believes that the present arbitrary basis on which the database is built is both unsustainable and unjustifiable.

3. S & Marper concerns the legality of amendments to s64 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which enable the police to retain bodily samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints from anyone arrested for a recordable offence, whether or not they are charged, prosecuted or convicted. Virtually all offences (except the most trivial) are recordable. Current Government policy is to retain this information, including DNA on the National DNA Database (NDNAD), until the individual dies or reaches 100 years old. Samples, profiles and fingerprints can be destroyed on request in exceptional circumstances.


S was arrested in January 2001 when he was an 11 year old boy. He has no previous convictions, cautions or warnings. He was charged with the offence of attempted robbery and his fingerprints and samples were taken. Following a trial on 14.6.01 S was acquitted. He subsequently sought through his solicitors the destruction of his samples and fingerprints, but the police refused because of the legislative amendments referred to above (which came into force with retrospective effect on 11.5.01).

Marper was 38 when he was arrested in March 2001. He had no previous convictions. He was charged with harassment of his partner and his fingerprints and DNA samples were taken. By the time of a pre-trial review in May 2001 he had reconciled with his partner who no longer wished to press charges. The proceedings were discontinued. The police refused his request for the destruction of his samples and fingerprints.

European Court of Human Rights

S & Marper applied to the ECtHR to raise the following legal questions:

1. Is there any justification for keeping the original bodily samples from which DNA profiles are generated? Whilst the profiles reveal a limited amount of information about an individual, the samples contain that person’s complete genetic makeup and to retain them requires a very strong justification which the government has not supplied. The government says the samples are needed for quality control purposes and in case it might need to upgrade the database in future. Liberty does not accept this. A future upgrade of the database is a hypothetical possibility which does not justify retention of the samples now. It is likely that the database will soon be so large that an upgrade of the all the profiles is in any event an unrealistic option.

2. Is there sufficient justification for keeping DNA profiles from those not convicted of any offence? Although the profiles (a numerical representation of part of a person’s DNA) may be difficult to decipher to the untrained eye, there are a number of major privacy issues that arise from their retention on the database. 

3. Research is carried out on the database without the consent of those whose profiles are on it. This is only supposed to be for the ‘prevention or detection of crime’ but that is interpreted very broadly so that research into ethnicity for example would be acceptable provided it can be loosely associated with crime prevention or detection.

4. The NDNAD has an electronic link to the Police National Computer to enable the police to use it for intelligence purposes. The PNC is accessible from over 120,000 terminals in the UK, including non-police bodies. Previously, records held on the PNC were ‘weeded’ so that if you were acquitted or no proceedings were brought, the PNC record would be removed after around 40 days. Now, because of the link between the NDNAD and the PNC and because DNA profiles are kept until death/age 100, the PNC records are also kept. As a solution to the legal implications of this, the police propose to mask some of the information from ‘non-police users’ of the PNC but the system is not yet fully operational. Further, the Information Commissioner (ICO) considers that for the police to keep all this information even for themselves breaches the Data Protection Act 1998.

5. Britain’s DNA database is proportionately the largest in the world. Approximately 4.5 million people have their DNA permanently retained on the NDNAD.