Criticism from lawyers, judges and the press may be deterring health professionals from being expert witnesses in family cases, a working group looking into a chronic shortage has said.
The group was set up by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division, who warned last year that the supply of expertise was ‘drying up’. In a draft report published yesterday, the working group said the shortage could be particularly harmful for children under three, as delays could have a direct detrimental impact on the success of future placements.
More than 700 legal and health professionals responded to a survey to gauge the extent of the problem. Child and family psychiatrists and psychologists, paediatricians, neurosurgeons and geneticists were among the eight major shortages identified.
Nearly six in 10 health professionals were concerned about being criticised by the press, the judge or in cross-examination. Around four in 10 healthcare professionals identified inflexible court timetabling as an issue. Four in 10 also raised issues about the volume of material. A third of healthcare professionals identified a lack of support from NHS trusts. Other barriers or disincentives were remuneration, court processes, and lack of support and training.
The report said the wide range of barriers means solutions will need to cover a wider range of areas than might initially have been thought, and would require engaging at senior level with the Department of Health, the NHS and the Ministry of Justice.
Recommendations include amending Legal Aid Agency guidance for granting prior authority and payment to experts to simplify the process for rendering invoices. Experts should be treated appropriately during court hearings and in judgment. Greater awareness should also be promoted among legal professionals on best practice.
Mr Justice Williams, chair of the group, said: ‘Providing reports to the family courts is hugely time-consuming and requires meticulous scrutiny of medical records and radiological imaging. With the complexities and demands of practising in the modern NHS, it is perhaps not surprising that few individuals are willing to take on the challenges of being a medical expert. However, the role of the medical expert in the family court can be greatly rewarding and clearly the protection of the vulnerable child is the responsibility of all.’
Williams J added that he was ‘particularly heartened’ by the progress made in discussions with the agency to simplify the process for authorising and paying experts.
A consultation on the 22 recommendations closes on 31 January.