Expertise and Experience
After the fall from grace of Sir Roy Meadow that followed on from serious questions about his role as an expert witness in cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome the Attorney General has introduced fresh guidance on expert witnesses.
Lord Goldsmith went on to outline proposals to allay fears that jurors place undue confidence in the testimony of expert witnesses in complex issues during court trials.
He said that he shared the concerns and announced that expert witnesses would now have to reveal all of their evidence, and its source, to investigating police. They must also inform prosecuting lawyers of anything “that might adversely affect their credibility or competence as an expert witness.”
He said: “They are reminded that they must not give expert opinion beyond their area of expertise. This guidance will set standards across the criminal justice system for the use of expert witnesses.
“The new guidance is one of a number of initiatives underway across government which will improve the management of expert evidence in the criminal courts.”
This will raise some interesting questions for m’learned friends when considering the latest case seeking judicial review over the alleged link between MMR and autism.
Part of me shouted, “Hooray!” Ken Aitken will no longer be able to claim expert witness status when he attacks vaccines as a cause of autism. He knows about autism but has no expertise in immunology or epidemiology. And Peter Fletcher, an acknowledged expert on the safety of medicines will have to admit to a lack of expertise when it comes to autism.
But another part of me that thinks, “What if an autism expert and a vaccine expert come together? Can they present combined expertise?” And on a personal note, a while ago one of my pupils was involved in criminal proceedings. I wrote a letter to the court and was prepared to testify that this pupil had severe learning difficulties. So that while her chronological age suggested moral awareness and criminal responsibility, her developmental age placed her below the age of criminal responsibility. The court accepted my written submission.
According to the Attorney General I am not an expert witness. I am not a psychologist. I have no forensic experience. I had a personal interest in this child. If she had put your child in hospital would you accept me as an expert witness?
Then there was the case of the autistic pupil who had been sectioned by a psychiatrist with very little knowledge of Asperger Syndrome. I provided peer reviewed citations and offered my own experience as a teacher of autistic children to support my contention that this young man’s presenting symptoms were explicable in terms of his autistic spectrum disorder and did not necessarily support a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But I was a humble teacher arguing with a Consultant Psychiatrist. I lost. If it had come to a court case the Attorney General’s current guidance would have disqualified me yet again.
For me the real problem is with the whole concept of the ‘expert witness.’ Expert = infallible. Expert = impartial. And it is only when you get expert witnesses contradicting each other that juries are expected to adjudicate on their credibility.
It would be better if juries were to decide on the credibility rather than the expertise of witnesses in all court cases. Arguments from evidence should take priority over arguments from authority. But this is a difficult area. I welcome other people’s thoughts.
I started writing this piece before a judge reversed the BMA decision to remove Sir Roy Meadow from the medical register. I will return to Sir Roy in a later post.
Thankyou Ivor for the correction. It was of course the GMC not the BMA which took disciplinary action against Sir Roy Meadow.