Professionals agree last month’s landmark High Court ruling in favour of Professor Sir Roy Meadow (Experts protected by Meadow ruling, 23 February) should reverse the decline in paediatricians willing to be expert witnesses in child protection cases. But there are mixed views over whether it is a positive development.
Judge Mr Justice Collins ruled that all expert witnesses giving evidence in good faith, even if their testimony is wrong, must be immune from disciplinary action by their regulatory bodies, so they are not deterred from coming forward.
The only exception is if a judge refers the case to the regulator.
Mr Justice Collins subsequently overturned the General Medical Council’s decision to strike Meadow off the register for giving mistaken evidence on sudden infant death.
Professor Sir Alan Craft, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says there are serious difficulties in getting paediatricians to act as expert witnesses in child protection cases, and many trainees are reluctant to specialise in the area. He says: “People have been running shy of getting involved in anything that might involve child protection.”
Craft says the ruling should give professionals confidence to express their opinions in court, adding that the judge’s power to refer cases to the regulator will be enough of a safeguard as such referrals have been made on several occasions.
Association of Lawyers for Children spokesperson Barbara Hopkin agrees, saying: “It stops every Tom, Dick and Harry [referring a case] and it means you are safe unless you have done a really bad piece of work.”
She argues that the key issue is that expert witnesses are only giving their professional opinion, rather than factual evidence, and therefore should not be reported to their professional bodies for negligence.
Independent social workers are the social care professionals most likely to give evidence in court as expert witnesses, due to their independent status. Mike Wardle, deputy chief executive of the General Social Care Council, says the body welcomes the ruling and that social workers will be supported by the decision.
Wardle says the ruling also allows regulators to appeal to judges to have cases referred to them if they think this is necessary, providing a further check on bad practice.
However, others in the social care sector argue that for expert witnesses to be seen as accountable, it is necessary for referrals to come from other quarters.
British Association of Social Workers director Ian Johnston says that while he does not want to see social workers unfairly treated if they give incorrect evidence in good faith, he would still expect regulators to deal with people who “discredit their profession”.
Liz McAteer, an independent social worker who provides expert testimony in child protection cases, says she understands the need to increase the pool of expert witnesses, but questions whether the ruling is the right solution.
She says parents and the public need to know that, if they disagree with what an expert says, they are able to challenge it.
“If parents see people providing evidence in court being immune from disciplinary action it might impact on their confidence in the court.
“I don’t want to be seen as untouchable,” she says.