Medical expert system faces reform

A radical shake-up of the system for providing medical expert witnesses in court has been announced today, to address fears that current witnesses are not reliable.

Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson proposed that rather than individual legal teams contacting individual doctors to act as witnesses in family courts, as now, the system be organised and regulated centrally through the NHS.

It comes after a series of high-profile court cases involving paediatrician Roy Meadows, whose evidence led to three women, Sally Clarke, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony being jailed for killing their children.

In the case of Sally Clarke, the professor told the jury that the chances of two babies in the same home dying of cot death were one in 73 million. This was later found to be exaggerated and mistaken, and she was released, as were the other two women.

Sir Roy was struck off the General Medical Council (GMC) list, but this ruling was disallowed by the high court who said he had not committed serious professional misconduct and was in any case immune from disciplinary action.

The GMC challenged this last ruling and last Thursday won the right to discipline expert witnesses, although the high court’s decision that Sir Roy should not be struck off remains in place. However, the system was severely damaged by the cases.

Today, Sir Liam published the results of a report commissioned in 2004, which proposes a new system for expert witnesses that will not only improve public confidence but also address the problems of getting medical experts to come forward as court witnesses.

He called for teams of specialist doctors in local NHS organisations to be created to allow experts to work together to provide mentoring, supervision and peer review, backed up by a service offering them information on the latest scientific developments.

The aim is to avoid the risk of reports for the courts being biased by the view of a particular individual, and ensuring they are backed up by sound evidence. The NHS would be reimbursed for taking on this extra work.

“It has become increasingly difficult for courts to find doctors willing to come forward as expert witnesses, especially where child abuse is suspected,” Sir Liam said.

“We need to create a system that both the expert witnesses and general public can be confident is of the highest possible 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.”