NHS trusts should take lead role in expert witness system, urges review

The use of medical expert witnesses in child care cases needs to be overhauled to improve quality and attract doctors, recommends a two-year review.

NHS trusts would train and develop teams of specialist clinicians, who would be commissioned to take on the role. Under the current system, solicitors individually approach doctors to give evidence.

A public body would commission the service. The body’s makeup would be decided through a consultation that will run until 28
February 2007. The cost of experts is currently shared by the Legal Services Commission and councils.

The review, by chief medical officer Liam Donaldson, was commissioned in June 2004 after a series of cases in which medical evidence was disputed. However, his proposals apply only to the family courts. It was originally expected to report
at the end of last year but was delayed

The review identified several problems with the system: that it was poorly organised, there was no succession planning, and doctors were deterred from becoming expert witnesses by fear of referral to the General Medical Council. The review was welcomed by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which has long warned that the supply of expert witnesses
is drying up.

The report followed two Appeal Court judgements last week in the case of Roy Meadow, whose disputed evidence helped convict Sally Clark of murdering her two babies – she was later released on appeal.

In the first judgement, the Appeal Court upheld the High Court’s decision to find him not guilty of serious professional misconduct, overturning a GMC ruling. But in the second, it ruled that expert witnesses should not be immune from  disciplinary action by their regulatory bodies, overturning the earlier High Court ruling.

Bearing Good Witness: Proposals for Reforming the Delivery of Medical Expert Evidence in Family Law Cases

The proposals
● Turn expert evidence into an NHS service.
● Trusts with substantial paediatric, child and adult psychology and psychiatry services to provide it.
● A public sector organisation will commission and meet the full costs of the service.

Contact the author
 Amy Taylor

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.