It was a pleasure to attend the Expert Witness Institute Conference last week. The organisation was superb and the range of speakers excellent. Attending as a solicitor it provided a most useful insight into the challenges facing expert witnesses as they face the impact of changes to Legal Aid, the civil justice reforms and face the consequences of the loss of expert immunity following the Jones v Kaney decision in 2010. The first three speakers provided an interesting selection of views, and whilst the following observations are from a purely personal perspective, I think the stances taken just show why the changes are of such concern.
The keynote speaker was the Solicitor General, Oliver Heald QC. He gave a summary of the government position that contained no surprises. Essentially cuts are going to keep on coming and to an extent ‘put up, or shut up’ was the message to experts and lawyers. His acknowledgement of the importance of experts within all areas of civil, family and criminal justice was welcomed but he did not actually address the practical impact of cuts, change and more cuts.
Mark Stobbs, Director of Legal Policy from the Law Society gave a measured, erudite and thoughtful address which painted a much more miserable, grimmer picture of the current legal landscape. It is sad to say but this was a much more realistic appraisal of the current situation and he made the point very well that further cuts would have an impact on all seeking justice. His sense of alarm for the legal profession and for expert witnesses gave everyone food for thought.
The Right Honourable Anthony Hooper gave his inaugural address as Chair of the Institute and provided a number of accounts of when expert evidence has been able to ensure that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent walk free. These illustrative examples showed just why expert evidence is so important to justice. Though no longer a member of the judiciary his comments about concerns in respect of lack of access to justice, to expert evidence and the impact of this highlighted again the impact of cuts and reforms on some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The value of expert witnesses in proceedings, in courts and tribunals, pre and post issue is clearly recognised by everyone involved in British justice. It inevitably must raise questions about how reducing the number of experienced expert witnesses (and lawyers) can be in the interests of justice.
What came through from not just these speakers but the conference as a whole was the impact of changes on experts. The consideration of some form of accreditation, the changing relationship between experts and those who instruct them and the fact that there will be a more rigorous consideration of time spent by solicitors and courts when it comes to paying bills. Inevitably the use of IT cannot be ignored, but as ever it should not be an increased burden but should complement current practice.