Get expert help if you want to end up in court

February 3, 2006

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

Academics must keep up to date to avoid problems when giving specialist evidence, Harriet Swain discovers

When appeal court rulings overturned the convictions of three women jailed for killing their babies, after it judged that the evidence given by paediatrican Sir Roy Meadow was unsound, it shook the world of expert witnesses. The General Medical Council said at the time that Meadow's actions had "seriously undermined" the position of all doctors giving evidence in trials, and it is reporting difficulties finding child experts willing to get involved in the legal process. Brian Thompson, secretary of the Expert Witnesses Institute, says expert witnesses in other fields are also likely to be affected.

It is in an attempt to address the post-Meadow world of expert witnesses, as well as to take on board a number of new regulations governing what expert witnesses do, that the institute is holding a conference this month with the Institute of Psychiatry focusing on "complying with the courts requirements".

Thompson argues that the Meadow case, now on appeal, represented a failure of the legal system, not just of an individual, and that judges and lawyers are as much in need of training to deal with expert witness evidence as experts are in being trained to give it.

Kris Naudts, deputy director of the forensic psychiatry teaching unit at the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital and an organiser of the conference, says: "We wanted to understand each other better since we are confronted with each other all the time in court."

The conference is designed to attract experts in the subject of psychiatry and lawyers, and will offer practical advice on how to write reports and appear in court, as well as an overview of the expert witness role.

Louis Blom-Cooper, a past chairman of the Expert Witness Institute, will speak about how the role is changing, while James Badenoch, the current chair, will look to the future of the organisation. But the core of the conference will consist of a series of workshops given by leading experts and lawyers.

Naudts says psychiatrists and psychologists face particular difficulties because lay people tend to have opinions about the subject and it attracts more media interest than other scientific fields, which are more likely to have their evidence taken on trust. At the same time, it is a subject that is rapidly evolving, which makes it harder for non-professionals to understand the field. "Neuroscientific research increasingly underpins our work," he says. "It is not this Freudian sofa any more."

Court appearances are not as common as they were as greater efforts are made to solve cases through mediation, but the demand for reports from expert witnesses remains high. Naudts says psychiatrists seem to be called on more often to give evidence than they used to be, perhaps, among other things, because of increases in court referrals.

Thompson says the problem for expert witnesses is that they have to be fully up to date not only with their own specialist knowledge but also with what is required of them by the courts, and this includes case law as well as changes in procedure.

In the past few months, a new experts protocol has been introduced to the civil courts, while a new procedure for conduct in criminal cases is being drafted. It raises questions such as whether it is appropriate to have a single joint expert in criminal cases, something that concerns Thompson because of the adversarial nature of criminal courts and the likelihood that a case rests on an expert's evidence. He says it is important that expert witnesses are kept abreast of all these developments.

But there have also been a number of cases that highlight the problems of expert witness training. When Barbara Salisbury, a hospital nurse, appeared in court accused of attempting to murder four elderly patients, the defence complained because one of the National Health Service witnesses giving evidence against her had been on a witness preparation course. In that case, the judge found nothing wrong, but another case was thrown out by the Court of Appeal when it emerged that a training company had prepared a witness for a trial using a study that replicated the real case almost exactly.

Penny Cooper, associate dean at the Inns of Court School of Law, says that old cases should never be used as training examples for expert witnesses because there is always a danger that the case may be retried in future.

"What has come out of all these cases is that there is a line between training and coaching," Cooper says. "Cases such as that involving Salisbury show that witness preparation can be done if it is done properly."

Expert Witnesses: Complying with the Courts' Requirements takes place at The Honourable Society of Gray's Inn, London, WC1, on February 22.

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