Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath
Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath alleges she was "lied to" repeatedly by forensic lab leaders. Image by Jono Searle/AAP PHOTOS
  • health

Call for national testing standard after Qld lab bungle

Fraser Barton November 21, 2023

A national standard for forensic testing has been backed by Queensland’s attorney-general following years of bungles by a state-run laboratory.

Yvette D’Ath says she would welcome discussion on the issue as Queensland deals with the aftermath of two inquiries into DNA testing practices in the state.

More than 100,000 samples may need to be re-tested after a second inquiry, which examined the lab’s “fundamentally flawed” automated DNA extraction method used from 2007 to 2016 – known as Project 13.

With 37,000 cases already being reviewed, the backlog could take three years to clear.

Retired Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett led the second inquiry, finding a number of scientists raised concerns about Project 13 but it went nowhere due to an “absolute lack of governance”.

Dr Bennett said there was no evidence to undermine public confidence in the lab’s current work, given the progress made under new boss Dr Linzi Wilson-Wilde.

But Ms D’Ath said she was open to speaking with other states and territories about establishing a nationalised forensic testing approach.

“I said from day one when this first occurred that I think there needs to be a conversation,” Ms D’Ath said on Tuesday.

“I know other jurisdictions, when I was health minister, they were all looking at what was happening in Queensland and … going ‘ok, where do we sit in that and what are we doing?’

“No doubt, there is a conversation to be had there and it’s a conversation I welcome.”

A lengthy first inquiry, led by Walter Sofronoff KC last year, found many DNA samples went untested and others were incorrectly ruled insufficient by the lab.

Cathie Allen, who was in charge of the lab at the time, was sacked in May.

Ms D’Ath said she had first-hand experience with the lab’s former hierarchy and never wanted to see that culture again.

“I was lied to myself as the health minister, to my face, time and time again when I asked about these issues,” she said.

“It was very much controlled from the top in that organisation, who ignored and basically allowed for these practices to continue.”

Health Minister Shannon Fentiman said a lot of work had been done to overhaul the culture within the lab.

“(Cathie Allen’s) employment was terminated earlier this year, and a whole lot of work has been done to set up proper governance, to set up quality assurance, to set up transparency and accountability,” she said.

Ms D’Ath said the second inquiry’s report released on Monday noted that no one who currently worked at the lab should be held directly responsible for Project 13’s failures.

“They weren’t the decision-makers,” she added.

Dr Bennett recommended that all Project 13 testing be reviewed and part of the historical case review underway following the initial inquiry.

The Queensland government is outsourcing overseas and nationally to deal with the huge testing backlog.

Legislation amendments will also be introduced in state parliament to extend the amount of time DNA samples can be held.