The Chief Medical Officer (CMO, Sir Liam Donaldson pictured left) is proposing a radical overhaul of the current medico-legal expert system to improve the quality of the service and to ensure a sustainable supply of expert witnesses. The report Bearing Good Witness: Proposals for reforming the delivery of medical expert evidence in family law cases has been launched for a period of public consultation ending on 28th February 2007. The report was originally commissioned in response to some very high profile court cases. One such case, involved the memorable flawed statistical evidence given by Professor Sir Roy Meadow that initially helped convict Sally Clark of killing her two sons.
The CMO’s key proposal is that the NHS should establish teams of specialist doctors and other professionals within local NHS organisations. These teams would be offered mentoring, supervision, peer review and teaching of skills required for court appearances. Currently, the proposals are focused on developing the guidelines for the family courts, however, it is easy to see how these proposals could be rolled out as generic guidelines for all medico-legal expert witnesses.
These proposals come in the wake of legal wranglings as to the professional position of experts in legal proceedings. In 2005, a High Court ruling offered immunity to medico-legal experts from disciplinary proceedings for evidence given in court. However, this has recently been overturned in the Court of Appeal. This was welcomed by the General Medical Council whose Chief Executive Finlay Scott said that they did not believe in any immunity solution “that placed doctors and other professionals beyond the reach of their regulator.”
Overall, it seems that combining accountability with support for medico-legal experts is a welcome combination.
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