QC: Shortage of up-to-date expert medical witnesses

Howes: Best experts are on the wards every day

Experienced medical professionals who are still working and have up-to-date knowledge of practice and procedure are becoming increasingly reluctant to act as expert witnesses, lawyers have warned.

Speaking at the Bar Council’s annual conference in London on Saturday, Sally Howes QC, a criminal barrister at 2 Kings Bench Walk who specialises in shaken baby syndrome cases, said the best experts were those who are on the hospital wards every day and have recent experience with patients.

Ms Howes said: “The biggest issue and the most important criteria is whether experts are in current practice.”

But she said it was becoming increasingly difficult to persuade medical experts with up-to-date, practical experience to act as expert witnesses and come to court.

She acknowledged that some retired doctors made outstanding expert witnesses, but warned that courts are increasingly having to rely on retired specialists who are “just sitting in the in their garden sheds downloading reports from the internet”.

She added: “I can absolutely understand that it’s enough trouble trying to do the day job and that many practising medical experts will not want to have to deal with the criminal courts.”

Hari KIaur, a barrister at 7BR who specialises in sexual abuse cases, told the conference that the pool of medical experts was becoming “much more shallow”, particularly in the field of pathology.

In September, Lady Justice Nicola Davies said that too many people regarded being an expert witness as a “nice retirement number” and could be seen as dinosaurs.

The Court of Appeal judge said she believed medical experts who left clinical practice more than five years ago should not be doing the job.

She said it was a “false point” for solicitors to instruct an expert who had not been in practice “for some time” as “ultimately it will undermine the credibility of the expert in the eyes of the court”.

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