The NHS is to train and provide expert witnesses but some lawyers worry about a lack of choice, writes Sally Gillen
Evidence provided by medical expert witnesses in court cases can be vital. But in recent years confidence in the quality of evidence provided by experts has been shaken in the wake of high-profile cases such as the conviction of Sally Clark for murdering her two babies – a conviction which was later quashed because of misleading expert evidence from Professor Sir Roy Meadow.
Last week, chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson published plans to radically overhaul the system following a government review of the way medical expert witnesses operate.
Currently, individual solicitors are responsible for hiring expert witnesses. Barbara Hopkin, spokesperson for the Association of Lawyers for Children, says this is usually done by word-of-mouth recommendation.
Under the proposals, which only cover the family courts, the NHS would provide the expert witness service and would develop specialist teams of clinicians to fill the role currently carried out by individuals. The service would be commissioned by a public body whose make up would be decided by a consultation that will run until 28 February 2007.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says that the publicity surrounding Roy Meadow has deterred many doctors from becoming expert witnesses.
But, Mark Solon, a founder partner of Bond Solon, a company that trains expert witnesses, disagrees that there is a shortage. “Frankly, the work is very interesting and lucrative and we haven’t seen any decline in the number of doctors wanting training to do this sort of work following the Meadow case,” he says. Experts, after all, enjoy the respect generated by their specialist knowledge and financial rewards of up to £250 per hour.
However, the government is convinced that there is a shortage. It says the system is leading to many doctors never being asked to provide expert evidence or feeling unqualified to do so. The proposals will tackle this by offering better training, mentoring, supervision and peer review. Hopkin sees advantages for solicitors in an NHS-run system because it would reduce the time it takes to recruit an expert.
Not only can it be time-consuming to find an expert but they may not be free to work on the case for several months, which in turn is often to blame for lengthy delays in cases. Processing cases more quickly would benefit children and families.
Despite this, Hopkin has mixed feelings about what the government is proposing. She says: “It would be a lot easier if there was a central service but we would have much less control over who writes the report. You could end up having someone inexperienced working on your case. It’s a lottery.”