Expert witness plans fail to reassure clinicians

Department of Health plans to increase the supply of expert medical witnesses for children’s public law cases will not remove the chief deterrent to clinicians giving evidence in court, consultation respondents have claimed.

In a summary of responses to its plans to set up an NHS expert witness service, the DH said “a substantial number” of the 135 respondents said the threat of referral to the General Medical Council was the most important deterrent to acting as an expert witness.

However, they commented that nothing in the Department of Health proposals would reduce this factor.

The GMC banned paediatrician Professor David Southall from child protection work for three years in August 2004 for claiming that Stephen Clark, whose wife Sally was wrongly convicted of murdering their two sons in 2003, was responsible for their deaths. His judgement derived from watching a documentary on the case.

In July 2005, the General Medical Council struck off fellow paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow for giving the “seriously misleading” evidence in the Clark case that the chances of two babies dying of cot death in an affluent family was one in 73million.

This was overturned by the High Court in February 2006, in a judgement which also said that expert witnesses should be immune from disciplinary action for incorrect or misleading information given in good faith to prevent them from being deterred from serving.

However, this immunity was removed in a judgement by the Court of Appeal in October last year, just before the Department of Health issued its plans to address a lack of supply of expert witnesses.

In this week’s report on consultation responses, the DH said over 60% had backed its plans to set up NHS expert witness teams, based in each English region, who would be commissioned to provide services in most Children Act family court cases, to ensure adequate supply. Solicitors would still be able to call on non-NHS expert witnesses.

However, around half of 49 health professionals who responded rejected the plans, on grounds of cost to the NHS, problems around the availability of enough trained practitioners and possible conflicts between teams’ court and clinical responsibilities.

Related information:

Overhaul of expert witness system aims to restore confidence in doctors’ evidence

Essential information on health services

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