Overhaul of expert witness programme proposed

England’s chief medical officer has proposed a radical overhaul of the system for providing expert witnesses for family courts.

The key proposal of Sir Liam Donaldson's report was that a new service should be established by the NHS, whereby teams of specialist doctors and other professionals in local NHS organisations would group together to improve the quality of the service by introducing mentoring, supervision and peer review, backed by a new National Knowledge Service to support the medical expert witness programme.

The report also suggested that the legal professions should use a checklist in order to establish the credentials of prospective medical expert witnesses.

Sir Liam said that these measures should avoid the risk of reports for the courts being biased by the view of one particular person, or lacking in the authority that comes from a sound evidence base. He also said that the measures would address the difficulty in maintaining an adequate supply of medical expert witnesses.

The proposals follow a number of high profile court cases where the quality of medical expert witnesses were called into question, such as the cases of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark. Both women were initially convicted of killing their children at trials which included evidence by experts witnesses. However, they were later cleared when the convictions were ruled unsafe.

Sir Liam said: "It has become increasingly difficult for courts to find doctors willing to come forward as expert witnesses, especially where child abuse is suspected. We need to create a system that both the expert witnesses and general public can be confident is of the highest standard.

"These proposals are driven by my conviction that it is the duty of medical professionals and health organisations to safeguard children. Ensuring that the family courts have access to the best information when making decisions that will affect the lives of some of our most vulnerable children is closely linked to that duty.

Care Services Minister Ivan Lewis said: "For the sake of the vulnerable children and families whose future depends on legal judgements, we must secure the best possible medical expertise in public law Children Act cases.

Sir Ronald De Witt, Chief Executive of Her Majesty's Court Service, said: "I welcome the report's overall objective to improve the quality and supply of medical expert witnesses provided to the family courts. I see this as a positive step forward in working towards the development of a larger pool of experts, within a framework that will also provide quality and cost control."


Related UK National News Stories
Click here for the latest headlines.

16 May 2013
MoJ Seek To Cut Expert Witness Legal Aid Cost
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is seeking to reduce the cost of legal aid with a number of fresh cuts, the Guardian has reported. One of the issues highlighted by the MoJ is that of expert witnesses, which they say give evidence of little value on family courts.
08 June 2006
Rooney 'fit' for World Cup knock-out stages
England striker Wayne Rooney has rejoined the England squad in Germany following a scan on his broken foot in Manchester on Wednesday. The 20-year-old Manchester United star returned to Manchester for a scan on his broken metatarsal, which was fractured in a Premiership match against Chelsea in April.
23 October 2003
Relocation strategy set to tackle witness intimidation
Intimidated and vulnerable witnesses will have the option of being moved to safety more swiftly following the launch of a national scheme tomorrow.
15 May 2003
Guidelines to tackle witness intimidation published
The government has published new guidelines today on how to more effectively tackle the problem of witness intimidation. It is hoped that the recommendations will see improved assessment of the risk of intimidation and a better system of fasttrack re-housing for victims and witnesses who may need to move locations at short notice.
15 March 2005
Mother accused of baby murders granted bail
A mother, who was jailed for killing her two children, has been granted bail by the Court of Appeal. Donna Anthony, 31, was convicted of the murder of her two children, Jordan and Michael, in November 1998 at Bristol Crown Court. Eleven-month-old Jordan died in February 1996 and four-month-old Michael died in March 1997.