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Medical Expert Witnesses

Volume 694: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2007

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Ann Keen), has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

A summary of the responses received during a public consultation exercise, based on the report of the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, Bearing Good Witness: Proposals for Reforming the Delivery of Medical Expert Evidence in Family Law Cases, has been placed in the Library and is available on the Department of Health website at www.dh.gov.uk/Consultations/LiveConsultations/fs/en.

The report's key proposal is that protecting vulnerable children should be a public service and that the National Health Service should develop a new resource for the family courts by establishing expert witness teams of specialist doctors and other healthcare professionals.

The consultation attracted responses from a wide spectrum of parties and organisations with interests in the family court system. The results from 135 responses received indicated that over 60 per cent and almost all key stakeholder organisations approved the proposal to introduce NHS expert witness teams and to commission the expert witness service through a public sector organisation.

The responses confirmed that the introduction of NHS teams should not reserve the work to the NHS but should offer an additional source of expertise. Responses also suggested that the activity of these teams should be confined, at least for the present, to public law family cases where joint instructions apply, and be commissioned regionally to ensure the independence of NHS experts from the local authority and staff directly involved in the case.

Consultation responses raised concerns over the ability of the NHS to undertake this work within its resources, a shortage of doctors willing to act as expert witnesses, time constraints for those who chose to do so and possible conflict between a requirement to assist the courts and clinical responsibilities. The availability of trained professionals, particularly those involved in child safeguarding and shortages of consultants in child and adolescent mental health and in paediatric radiology, were among concerns raised over NHS skill levels in some specialised areas.

A substantial number of respondents focused on the deterrent effect of referrals of expert witnesses, particularly paediatricians, to their regulatory body as an unwarranted consequence of their giving expert evidence in court—and regardless of any legitimate cause for complaint. Further measures are envisaged to counter this effect. The Government fully recognise that, in order for health professionals to do their job properly and effectively, they need to be clear about the boundaries of the professional and legal framework in which they work. The issues here go broader than those around expert witnesses, into the wider role of medical professionals in the detection and investigation of child abuse and neglect.

In order to help clarify the situation, I have recently written jointly with my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan), to relevant organisations with a statement setting out the Government's understanding of the legal position as considered in some recent judgments.

The statement, which outlines professionals' duty of care, the legal framework within which they operate and the basis on which sound professional judgments should be made, has been placed in the Library and is available on the Every Child Matters website: www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/safeguarding/.

The role of doctors and other healthcare professionals in acting as expert witnesses is both fundamental and vital to the safeguarding of children's welfare. Any diminution in this resource would be extremely detrimental, especially to the most vulnerable children and those most at risk of abuse. We shall therefore be supporting the NHS in taking forward the introduction of teams. We envisage that this will be through the introduction of pathfinding teams in the first instance but gradually increasing so that NHS healthcare expert witness services will eventually be available throughout the country.