What is the crime if men seek confirmation that children are theirs?
by Barry Pearson
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Policing the commissioning of tests

Commissioning a paternity test using a home kit involves: finding the testing service; obtaining the testing kit; paying for the test; posting the samples in the envelope provided; then obtaining the report. Each stage is a potential point of detection that could lead to prosecution. But that doesn't mean that each stage is bad behaviour that deserves prosecution.

It is easy to find services that supply home testing kits to the UK. There are eighty or more such services visible on the Internet. They are based in ten or more countries. It would take international agreement to make them unavailable. This is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Companies providing home testing kits know how to help their customers hide their use of the test. They can send the kit to a different address from the customer's own. They can appear benign on a bank or credit card statement. Some deliver the result over the Internet.

How could use of such tests be detected? Could this plausibly be done by monitoring mail to specific overseas addresses? (The materials don't need parcel post). Or by monitoring money transfers to specific overseas accounts? Could these lists of prohibited destinations even be maintained? No: this would be a very expensive and intrusive operation.

Could this be achieved by asking other nations to monitor the use of their paternity testing services by UK citizens and report them to authorities in the UK? The FBI ran Operation Candyman to monitor the use of child pornography services in the US. They reported UK customers to UK authorities, hence Operation Ore. But there is international consensus that child pornography services are wrong. There is no such consensus about paternity testing.

Perhaps the paternity testing services could be persuaded not to accept clients from the UK. But unless national laws elsewhere, including individual laws of 50 US states, prohibit such trade, why turn down business? Only one precedent has been found. Some US paternity testing service providers will not send home testing kits to addresses in New York State.

Suppose that the above problems could be overcome. Would the use of such a test be an absolute offence? That would make it easier to detect whether an offence had been committed. But the Secretary of State for Health said "this new offence should not interfere with proper lawful access to private paternity testing" [1].

If the offence were "to commission a test where some samples have been obtained without consent", how would this be detected? Suppose an envelope were detected that contains two bags with hair follicles, and only the name of the commissioner. How would the other person be identified and asked about consent? That could be more damaging than the original test.

Australia may attempt to ban the commission of a paternity test unless all people with parental responsibility for the child consent to it [2]. That is a stronger constraint even than authorising major surgery for the child. Their approach will suffer all of the above problems.


[1] Government Response To The HGC's Report: Inside Information: Balancing Interests In The Use Of Personal Genetic Data, John Reid, 24th June 2003.

[2] Essentially Yours: The Protection of Human Genetic Information in Australia, Australia Law Reform Commission, 14th March 2003.

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Page last updated: 13 December, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003