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Friday, 31 January, 2003, 18:01 GMT
Expert witnesses - conflict of interest?
Sally Clarke
Sally Clark wrongly convicted by expert witness evidence

An expert witness is someone who has specialist knowledge in a field, who is independent of a legal case and who can assist a court to come to a just decision by expressing an accurate opinion based on all the available facts.

Often expert witnesses start doing this type of work by chance. They are instructed on one case and gradually over time develop an ad hoc system of producing reports and going to court.

They rarely get any independent appraisal of their work and learn as they go along by trial and error.

Problems can arise as the expert is paid by one side, yet should have a prime duty to assist the court

Mark Solon on expert witnesses

They think they are doing it right just because they are instructed again.

This is clearly a very unsatisfactory state of affairs for clients, solicitors and courts.

Dual roles

I think it stems from the fact that experts do not see they have two roles.

Firstly as a professional in their chosen field and second as an expert witness. This is a separate role that has its own skills and disciplines.

Mark Solon
Mark Solon: experts have a dual role

An expert needs to be able to communicate the knowledge from their professional field in a legal setting. They are often unaware of the requirements of legal practices and procedures.

There is currently no requirement in the criminal courts for an expert to be trained to be an expert witness, or for them to be registered in any particular directory.

Problems can arise as the expert is paid by one side, yet should have as a prime duty to assist the court. There is always a conflict between independence and self-interest that is where the next case is coming from.

Experts can be paid several hundred pounds a day for attending court.

Confusing juries

Experts are sometimes able to confuse a jury by the use of technical information that is not fully explained or simply because they seem believable or likeable.

In theory the other sides expert should be able to refute spurious opinion evidence but in legally aided cases, the defence may not be able to get an expert of the right calibre or even any expert at all.

The current review of the criminal court system should look at the issues of proper training, registration, payment for experts, equality of experts for both prosecution and defence, full disclosure of all evidence and an express duty to the court and to tell the truth or we will continue to see repeats of the problems in the Sally Clark case.

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