Exclusive: Celebrating 40 years of DNA 'fingerprinting' in family law cases

John Bolch

John Bolch

on Mar 1, 2024



In his latest exclusive article for Cansford John Bolch, a Family Law blogger looks at 40 years of DNA and how much the world has changed in that time...


I began practising family law way back in 1983. Back then the spectre of the Child Support Agency had not yet cast its hideous shadow, and unmarried mothers were instead coming to me to seek maintenance for their children from their reluctant fathers.
Inevitably, many of those fathers played the innocence card by denying paternity, and my job then became that little bit more complicated.

Blood tests were of course available, but they could not prove with ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine recurring per cent certainty that Herbert was indeed the Daddy, as we all knew he was.
I’m not quite sure how the old blood tests worked (forgive me, it was a long time ago). As I recall they could tell you if the man was not the father, but couldn’t confirm that they were. Or something. Whatever, the point was that they weren’t 100% conclusive.

Further evidence was therefore required, and this usually meant the mother testifying that she was in a sexual relationship with the father at the date of conception. I remember looking at calendars myself to work out the date of conception.
But those fond memories were soon to end.

‘Eureka’ moment
Whilst I was fumbling around with calendars, a hundred-odd miles away at Leicester University a geneticist was about to make a discovery that would change everything. I will let him take up the story:
“My life changed on Monday morning at 9.05 am, 10 September 1984. What emerged was the world's first genetic fingerprint. In science it is unusual to have such a ‘eureka’ moment.

Extraordinarily variable patterns of DNA

We were getting extraordinarily variable patterns of DNA, including from our technician and her mother and father, as well as from non-human samples. My first reaction to the results was ‘this is too complicated’, and then the penny dropped and I realised we had genetic fingerprinting.”

The geneticist, of course, was Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys (the deserved knighthood came ten years later).
And it wasn’t long before the techniques developed by him became generally available. The first company to offer it was established in 1987, and I was one of their earlier customers.

Revolutionary in family law cases

I still remember the excitement of using DNA fingerprinting for the first time, and of receiving the results. Some years later I visited the premises of that company, and saw just how the magic is done.

And that magic, as it still seems to me to be, has revolutionised the issue of paternity testing, giving certainty (particularly to the children involved), and saving countless hours of court time. These days DNA fingerprinting is used every day by the family justice system, and I will finish this post with one recent example.

Complex relationships
The case involved care proceedings concerning two children, ‘Maisie’, aged 5 and ‘Thomas’, aged 4. As Her Honour Judge Reardon, hearing the case, explained, the relationships in the family were complex.
Maisie is the child of the mother and the father, Shaun and Janene. They also have another child, ‘Emma’, who is now aged 18. Emma is the mother of the Thomas – she gave birth to him when she was just 14.

So who is the father of Thomas?
Emma initially explained that Thomas’s father is a boy at the school she was then attending. The school, however, said that they were not aware of a relationship.

At some point suspicions began to arise about Thomas’s paternity. In 2019 Janene had expressed concerns about the close nature of Shaun’s relationship with Emma, and then in August 2021 a member of the wider family made a report to the local authority that Shaun and Emma had been seen naked in bed together.

The local authority became involved, and requested Emma and Shaun to submit to DNA testing. They both refused. In November 2022 the court made a finding, based on an inference, that Shaun was Thomas’s father and therefore that he had sexually abused his older daughter, Emma. Neither Shaun nor Emma accepted this finding.

A very long timeline...
This hugely unsatisfactory situation was eventually resolved in December last year.
The initial information obtained by the local authority in respect of DNA paternity testing for Thomas had suggested that in order to obtain a reliable result both of the putative parents – Shaun and Emma – needed to provide a sample.

However, later in the proceedings, further enquiries established that it was possible that paternity could be determined through testing of both children and members of their wider family, including Janene, Shaun’s sister and Shaun’s father. They all consented to give samples and the testing was carried out in December 2023. That testing established - to a probability of 99.9999% - that Shaun is Thomas’s biological father.

Judge Reardon gave permission to the local authority to disclose a copy of the DNA test results to the police. The DNA testing had thus unravelled the complex relationships, and enabled the Family Court to come to a fully informed decision. Thomas was placed in long-term foster care, where thankfully he appears to be happy.

I will leave you with these words of Judge Reardon....
“It is clear that Thomas’s foster carers love him for who he is: for his individual personality and characteristics, his strengths and vulnerabilities. It is impossible to overstate the value of that love for a child whose paternity will, sadly, put off many prospective adopters who have not met him and only have access to what is written on paper.”




John Bolch

John Bolch

John Bolch is well-known as one of the UK’s leading family law bloggers. He gave up practising in 2009 and now works freelance as a writer on family law matters.

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