Rebuilding reputations

The General Medical Council’s decision to strike Professor Sir Roy
Meadow off the medical register will give every expert called to
give evidence in court pause for thought. Some will see it as his
comeuppance for a reckless use of statistics, others will see it as
rough justice for someone merely putting forward his best opinion
of a difficult case, while others still will think smugly to
themselves “how are the mighty fallen”.

Meadow’s erroneous statistical evidence – he claimed that there was
a one in 73 million chance of both children dying from natural
causes – famously led to Sally Clark’s conviction for killing her
two babies, a verdict later overturned by the Appeal Court. The
professor, eminent in his field, has been made to pay a high price
for a mathematical mistake, albeit one with the gravest
consequences. At the very least it points to the need for a
fundamental review of the role of expert witnesses in court.

The controversy surrounding the use of expert witnesses and the
risk of being publicly pilloried has resulted in a drastic shortage
of paediatricians willing to work in family courts. The chief
medical officer has been looking at the problem for more than a

Part of the answer may well be child death reviews of the kind that
will be piloted in four areas of the country this year. Every child
death would be investigated to prevent experts arguing about the
cause in court years later. In many ways Meadow was himself the
victim of an adversarial legal system that puts the spotlight on a
few expert star turns in the witness box to the exclusion of other
professionals who may have a much longer association with the case.
Social workers and other family court practitioners are sometimes
astonished by the degree to which judges are star-struck by
colleagues with more professional “glamour”. Child death reviews
could instead promote a consensus among a wide range of
professional opinion.

They would also help to restore the credibility of both the courts
and the experts. A consequence of Meadow’s disgrace has been the
unjustified mocking of his theory of Munchausen’s syndrome by
proxy. Reform must happen soon if child protection is itself to be

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.