Feature Expert witnesses

Standing up for justice

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39219.530463.AD (Published 31 May 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:1139
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. Jgornall{at}mac.com

    The chief medical officer is due to finalise his plans for a radical overhaul of the expert medical witness system. The entire exercise, says Jonathan Gornall, was based on a false premise and is a flawed and redundant gesture that will only worsen the supply of experts to the family courts

    Bearing Good Witness, the chief medical officer's blueprint for radical reform of the medical expert witness system in the family courts, begins with an extraordinary admission. In the preface Liam Donaldson notes that he was asked to produce his report “in response to some very high-profile court cases that called into question the quality of medical expert witnesses.”1 Then he adds: “In developing my proposals, it has become clear to me that the problem is more one of supply than of quality.”

    It was an acknowledgement that despite the media response to the quashing of Sally Clark's and Angela Cannings' convictions for murdering their children, and what many believe was the government's attendant over-reaction, the quality of expert witnesses was not a substantial concern. The real problem, as Professor Donaldson realised, was a shortage of experts. To the dismay of professionals, however, Professor Donaldson offered no solution to the underlying reasons for the shortage—the prospect of vilification by campaigners and the media and the real risk of doctors losing their livelihoods at the hands of a regulator perceived to be overzealous.

    Consultation closed in February, and the chief medical officer was expected to publish the responses he received at the end of May, although a Department of Health spokesperson admitted there is “much more of detail to be discussed before a way forward may be determined to preserve the essential integrity of expert witness activity.”

    One such response, by the British Association for the Study and …

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