New paternity-testing site may be illegal

Experts question legality and reliability of DNAnow.com's tests

An online company offering hassle-free DNA paternity tests in the UK may infringe the UK Human Rights Act, according to experts. DNA Solutions, an Australian company, launched the Web site DNAnow.com in the UK Tuesday, offering to establish paternity based on a few hairs from the parent and child for a payment of £195.

As the company is keen to point out, hair samples can be taken "discreetly" and the whole process could be carried out without recourse to the child's mother or the courts. "In some cases the need for legal services can be totally eliminated, due to the nature of the sample ie it is not a medical procedure, therefore one parent can collect samples without the consent of second parent, other guardians or courts," reads a statement on the site.

But legal experts say that regardless of whether a medical procedure is involved, DNA.com may be breaking British law. "A DNA test without consent is an infringement of the Human Rights Act," insists Robin Bynoe, partner at law firm Charles Russell.

The Human Genetics Commission and Data Protection Commissioner are similarly in agreement that DNAnow.com are on thin legal ground. According to UK law, DNA paternity tests can only be carried out without the mother's consent if the father has legal guardianship of the child. The law courts are also unable to order a DNA test in a paternity case unless they have the consent of the mother or the child if they are old enough.

DNA is categorised as personal data under the Data Protection Act, and according to law should be protected by parental consent. Iain Bourne, compliance manager for health at the Data Protection Commissioner argues that DNAnow's decision to bypass parental consent "can be seen as the unlawful or unfair processing of data", and is therefore additionally violating the Data Protection Act. "It all sounds very dubious to me," he says.

Bynoe is concerned that the service could enable people caught up in legal rows over paternity to "hijack the courts". Despite the fact that a third-party DNA test online is not admissible in court, he believes that if someone were to turn up with test results from this site they could make their way into the proceedings.

He is also worried that people may order paternity tests for people that they aren't related to. Purely speculative paternity tests could make celebrities and people in the public eye and their children the victims of DNA test gold diggers. "They could even try to prove that Beckham isn't Brooklyn's real father, for example," Bynoe said.

There are also questions about the reliability of using hair for the test, instead of the more reliable blood test. Barney Wylde, press officer for the Human Genetics Commission, draws a big question mark over the hair-based test. The Web site asks for a minimum of four hair strands, but Wylde insists that a "big bunch of hair complete with root ends" would be needed to carry out an accurate test. "There is no way that a court would accept a test of this kind; it isn't reliable enough to claim paternity, and so wouldn't offer the parent peace of mind." He strongly recommends that anyone considering a paternity test of this kind should consult a lawyer first.

The Department of Health is currently drawing up a voluntary code of practice that will set guidelines for the availability and reliability of DNA paternity testing in the UK.

DNA Solutions could not be reached for comment.

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