Experts set to lose their day in court

March 24, 2000

Reforms of civil court hearings will lead to fewer academics being called as expert witnesses.

The measures, drawn up by Lord Woolf and brought in last year, are expected to restore mutual trust between lawyers and scientists in the courtroom.

A meeting on science and technology in the eye of the law, organised by the Royal Society on Tuesday, was told that many lawyers felt that academics' testimony had been overused in recent years.

Experts in a range of subjects, from forensics to the environment, were prepared to voice opinions on behalf of opposing parties, leading to the obscuring of facts and the delaying, or even wrong- footing, of decisions, Lord Wolf said.

Lord Woolf's procedures, designed to speed up and reduce the cost of civil hearings, had started to persuade many courts to use single experts to advise on scientific and technical matters rather than have different parties bring in their own expertise.

Gary Hickinbottom, a solicitor and partner in CMS Cameron McKennar, told the meeting that some experts appeared in court so often they were losing touch with their field. "Scientists appear to have lost faith in the law and to an extent, lawyers have lost faith in scientists," he said.

Lord Justice Stuart Smith said expert advice was crucial to many court and tribunal decisions but could be used to hijack a case with a flood of information. "It is vital that expert evidence can be made the tool of justice not the implement of injustice," he said.

Sir Richard Southwood, Oxford University zoologist, said the recent reforms were helping.

Richard Freeman, former chairman of the Academy of Experts, predicted a fall in the number of expert witnesses but said those who survived would be more useful and reliable. Measures should be expanded to cover family and criminal hearings as well, he said.

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