ISO/IEC 17025 or 17020 for Forensics?


Which standard is the appropriate standard for a forensic agency seeking accreditation? Pat Bencivenga, ANAB’s Accreditation Manager for Inspection and Forensic Science, recently addressed that question in an article recently published in Forensic Magazine.

Bencivenga observed a growing trend among forensic agencies to seek accreditation as a result of attacks on the forensic community over the last several years. Accreditation is a means to assure customers that the agency complies with international standards and recognized good practices, and that agency employees are technically competent to do their work.

A forensic agency seeking accreditation must decide if ISO 17020 or ISO 17025 is the appropriate standard. Neither is better than the other but one maybe more appropriate than the other for a given agency.

The two standards include similar management system requirements based on ISO 9001, but ISO 17025 requirements concern measurement uncertainty, traceability, and analytical validation, while ISO 17020 focuses more on impartiality, independence, and confidentiality.

For forensics, ISO 17025 is designed for analytical testing laboratories, according to Bencivenga. ISO 17025 is appropriate for use of analytical scientific instrumentation for the identification and quantitation of a material. It makes reference to accuracy, precision, traceability, measurement uncertainty, and method validation.

Historically, many crime scene units were part of a traditional state or metropolitan crime laboratory, which may appropriately have been accredited to ISO 17025. Because many police agencies are taking on tasks previously handled by big crime laboratories – such as crime scene investigations, latent print analysis, ten prints, foot and tire print examinations, firearms examinations, handwriting analysis, digital media, and anthropology – accreditation to ISO 17020 may be more appropriate.

ISO 17020 accreditation is appropriate for agencies using inspection processes (examination, measurements, testing, and comparison of materials or items) based on professional judgment rather than conducting analytical scientific testing.

Bencivenga encouragesforensic agencies to pursue the benefits of accreditation, but cautions that they should consider carefully which standard best fits their needs. Typically, that means ISO 17020 when using professional judgment to draw conclusions based on comparisons and ISO 17025 when using analytical instrumentation to generate data to determine the identity of an item.

In some cases, it may not be necessary to decide between the standards. Agencies with labs and crime scene units may opt to achieve accreditation to both, and Bencivenga notes that this can be accomplished with a single assessment.