What is Legal DNA testing?

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Legal DNA testing is commonly used as a way of defining the paternity of a child when dealing with child maintenance, immigration, and contact issues. The tests themselves play a vital role in many legal cases, but information about them can be misleading or inconclusive, giving a lack of surety to those who may require it.

Stress not, we’re going to keep it simple and explain ‘what is legal DNA testing?’

First of all, the alternative to legal DNA testing is not ‘illegal DNA testing’, but rather ‘peace of mind DNA testing’ which is something that can be carried out at home. For DNA tests to be valid for a legal case, they must be performed by an official authority which will send the DNA samples away for testing, leaving no room for contamination.

For a test to be legal, the participants must never handle the blood or saliva sample themselves, as this could affect accuracy. Photos may also be taken for visual verification. Legal DNA tests can be carried out at any of the 11 accredited testing facilities listed on this Government website, or from private facilities who will charge substantially more.

Why would you need a legal DNA test?

The main reason for a legal DNA test is to prove that two parties are or aren’t related. Quite commonly in the UK, where there is an issue of child custody or maintenance, a legal DNA test is court-ordered when one parent has refused to take a test voluntarily (this is a ‘court approved DNA test’). Establishing a biological parent can bring certainty to an emotional and difficult issue for many people.

There are other reasons for a legal DNA test, such as a right to know your genetic heritage, so that you can be aware of any inherited diseases that commonly run in the family. Another reason relates to inheritance and whether someone has a rightful claim to a share of an estate – in this case, it is usually a genetic relationship between siblings that is proven, rather than paternity. This is a very complicated process because of the confusion of half-siblings and the difference in the biological relationship between siblings and their parents.

In the case of immigration applications, proof of a genetic relationship between two people is often required to allow the applicant to join their family in another country. Even if the DNA test is not required, it can boost the strength of an application, however, it’s vital to know that this must be proven by a legal DNA test and not a ‘peace of mind’ DNA test.

Another reason a legal DNA test is used is for criminal cases where DNA samples are collected from a crime scene. The UK National DNA Database stores the genetic information of over 5 million people and has been used to solve over 300,000 crimes in the UK in the last 25 years.

How is a legal DNA test performed?

  • For immigration purposes, applicants should go to the British Embassy in their country of residence to find out what is valid and admissible, and if it can be performed at the embassy. Embassies often have DNA testing partners, so this step is not as complicated as it sounds.
  • For paternity cases, it’s very simple, you book in with a legal DNA testing facility and turn up to see the doctor. You take the test and wait for the results, one copy will be sent straight to the court to be used as evidence, and one copy will be sent to the named parent that lives with the child.
  • Almost all DNA tests, to participants of all ages, take a swab from the inside of your cheek. This is known as a buccal swab and causes no harm.
  • For prenatal paternity cases, blood is often drawn for the legal DNA sample.

Who pays for a legal DNA test?

The responsibility for payment falls on the participants in almost every case. The price varies depending on how many people are required to take the test, and also on which facility is used (private is more expensive). Public services cost around £250.

The outcome of a legal DNA test for paternity checks will also affect the cost, because, if a man is tested and found not to be the father then there will be a reduction in costs and also a refund of maintenance payments. A cost refund from a legal DNA test is only possible if it has been carried out by public services such as the Child Support Agency, or the Child Maintenance Service.

If the participant of a court-approved DNA test is unable to pay but is later found to be the father, then he must pay the cost back in full.