How Did DNA Testing Children Begin?
by Avi Lasarow
The story behind the first maternity and paternity tests
used for legal purposes.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable discovery
which forever changed the legal profession. In 1985, Alec
Jeffreys (now Sir Alec), a young genetics professor at
Leicester University, discovered DNA fingerprintingthe
technique which allows for unambiguous human identification
as well as relationship identification between different
people. Since then, DNA testing has emerged as a powerful
tool in both civil and criminal justice systems. DNA testing
can not only reveal whether two or more individuals are
related but can also determine the nature of this relationship.
Today, it is possible to identify people by a single hair,
as well as obtain information about their gender, ethnic
background, and nearly their exact age.
In non-criminal legal practice, DNA testing is used primarily
for immigration and child support cases. In 2004, more
than 7,000 DNA tests were conducted in the UK for these
purposes. When no reliable documentary evidence is available,
DNA testing can assist in determining varying degrees
of relatedness between individuals, as well as their ethnic
The landmark immigration case Sarbah vs. Home Office (1985)
was the first to use DNA testing to prove a mother-son
relationship between Christiana Sarbah and her son Andrew.
The case started in 1983 when Andrew, then 13, arrived
in England after a long stay in Ghana with Christiana's
estranged husband. Immigration officials held him at Heathrow
Airport, claiming his passport was forged, or that a substitution
had been made. Only after intervention by a local MP was
Andrew allowed to stay at his family's home in London.
Various genetic-determining tests showed that Christiana
and Andrew were almost certainly related; however, it
was impossible to determine whether Christiana was his
mother or merely an aunt (Christiana has several sisters
in Ghana). The photographic evidence and depositions were
rejected at an immigration hearing, but deportation was
delayed pending an appeal.
Around the same time, an article in The Guardian reported
the discovery of DNA fingerprinting by Prof. Alec Jeffreys
and his team at the University of Leicester. After reading
about their work, the legal team dealing with the case
approached Prof. Jeffreys, and he agreed to take on the
case. In order to prove that Christiana was Andrews
mother, a DNA test was performed on blood samples from
Christiana, Andrew, an unrelated individual, and Christiana's
three undisputed children: David, Joyce, and Diana.
Using a recently discovered DNA probe, a DNA fingerprint
was produced which confirmed that Christiana was indeed
Andrews biological mother, and that David, Joyce
and Diana were his siblings. Based on this evidence, the
case was dropped by the Home Office and massive press
coverage ensued. The discovery of DNA fingerprinting had
huge implication for the non-criminal legal system and
led to an overhaul of the UKs Immigration legislation.
Current UK immigration legislation accepts results of
DNA testing as the ultimate proof or relationship between
a child and his or her relatives. Accordingly, DNA test
results will normally (although not invariably) provide
conclusive evidence as to whether a child is related,
as claimed, to one or both of his alleged parents.
Before January 1991, it was up to the applicant to decide
whether or not to obtain DNA evidence in support of his
or her application or appeal. In January 1991, a government
scheme was introduced, which enables entry clearance officers
(ECO) to offer to arrange DNA tests in cases where they
are not satisfied that persons seeking admission as children
are related to their UK sponsor.
For more information, please visit DNA Bioscience, at
About the Author
Avi was awarded the prestigious Shell Live Wire Entrepreneur
of the Year award for his business. Working closely with
the charities and various media outlets Avi strives to
increase public awareness as to the benefits of DNA and
the continuing impact that technological advances will
have on all our lives.