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Doctors as expert witnesses
  1. JANE WYNNE, Consultant Community Paediatrician
  1. Belmont House, Clarendon Wing
  2. Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds LS2 9NJ, UK

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    Editor,—Most doctors do not like giving evidence in court, and giving an opinion is becoming more difficult as advocates appear to be increasingly hostile, and judges non- interventional. As care courts have become more adversarial it may be easier to appear as a witness in the criminal court where the rules of evidence are clear. Following the Children Act 1989 the emphasis was to be inquisitorial with “ . . .the child’s welfare is paramount” as the fundamental tenet.

    Contrary to this concept of the Children Act a group of doctors exists who do not appreciate the need to give evidence in an even handed way and to give all the evidence without omissions (Re AB1 and Re R2).

    The Expert Witness Group3 was established to make clear a doctor’s credentials, training, practice, and research interest. A standard form is available to the courts which clarifies the doctor’s expertise.

    The pretrial meetings in care proceedings aim to clarify and simplify medical opinion to smooth the legal proceedings4 and “reduce or obviate the need to attend court”. A schedule of agreement and disagreement is drawn up, there may be no significant differences of opinion yet the doctors are still called to court. Why meet, one wonders? There is a debate as to who should chair these meetings (I do not know any practising doctor with the time and secretarial back up to undertake this work).

    It is galling that the courts take doctors’ time so casually; often spending hours in the witness box—often far longer than with the child and family. What can be done?

    the full implementation of the Pigot report5 would allow more children to be heard in criminal proceedings
    universal introduction of the Expert Witness Group’s form would clarify the expertise of the witness
    pretrial liaison is useful but only if there is a reduction in doctors’ hours in court
    referral of more cases to lower courts to be heard by appropriately trained magistrates
    more joint training between paediatricians and advocates (at all levels). With more discussion and training paediatricians will become better advocates for children.

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