Criticism from lawyers, judges and the press may be deterring health professionals from being expert witnesses in family cases. Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, warned back in 2018 that the supply of expertise was ‘drying up’.
In autumn 2018 Sir Andrew established a working group to identify the scale of the problem, to look at the causes and to identify possible solutions. Mr Justice Williams was appointed to chair the group with representation from the judiciary, legal profession, royal medical colleges and other interested bodies.
Mr Justice Williams said: “Providing reports to the family courts is hugely time-consuming and requires meticulous scrutiny of medical records and radiological imaging. With the complexities and demands of practising in the modern NHS, it is perhaps not surprising that few individuals are willing to take on the challenges of being a medical expert. However, the role of the medical expert in the family court can be greatly rewarding and clearly the protection of the vulnerable child is the responsibility of all.”
In November last year the working group produced a report using information gathered from surveys of the legal and medical fields and a symposium held in London last July.
The report confirms the nature and extent of the shortages of medical and other health professional as experts, identifies a wide range of causes and proposes solutions. It was followed by a consultation seeking the views of interested parties, which closed at the end of January.
One of the respondents to the report was the Law Society, which said: “The Law Society welcomed the opportunity to respond to this consultation as this is an issue that our members have raised in the past and continue to face. It is important that the president is looking to improve the current situation regarding medical experts in these proceedings as they fulfil a vital role in helping courts reach decisions that are in the best interests of all parties.
“We are also pleased to see that the consultation is looking at a cross-body approach, including proposals that will affect bodies in both the medical and professional fields. Cooperation between all those involved in these proceedings is essential and the legal aspects cannot be considered in a vacuum.
“The recommendations are thorough, well considered and would generally greatly improve the current paucity and issues around quality of medical experts. However, we are concerned about where the resources for some of the proposals would come from and recommend that this is given more consideration.”
The Expert Witness Institute was less fulsome in its praise.
The EWI said: “Whilst the EWI is pleased to see this issue being considered, we were disappointed and surprised that there is no reference at all in the report to the potential role of the EWI (or indeed any other expert witness organisations and training providers) and that there has been no engagement or formal consultation with us over this work.”