Expert witnesses promised immunity from disciplinary action

A High Court judge has ruled that expert witnesses giving evidence in court must be immune from any disciplinary action, save in exceptional circumstances.

The ruling comes off the back of the case of paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow, who was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council last July following his appearance as an expert witness in the trial of Sally Clark.

Clark was convicted of murdering her two children, but later acquitted after evidence given by Meadow was discredited. The GMC found him guilty of serious professional misconduct.

However, backing Meadow’s challenge to the order to strike him off, Mr Justice Collins said that all witnesses giving evidence in good faith must be protected from civil prosecution and disciplinary action, even if their testimony was wrong.

“It may be proper to have criticised him for not disclosing his lack of expertise,” Justice Collins said. “But that does not justify a finding of serious professional misconduct.”

The judge said there was “no doubt” the case had increased the reluctance of medical professionals to give evidence in court, and that this would continue “unless it is made clear that such proceedings need not be feared by the expert witness”.

Welcoming the decision, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “We hope that today’s decision will give confidence back to paediatricians, whose responsibility and role is so important in the protection of children and who can contribute so much in the position of expert witnesses.”

However, the GMC criticised the ruling for placing experts in court proceedings beyond the reach of watchdogs.

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