Judges to veto advice from expert witnesses

Witnesses Law Commission wants tighter checks on expert views to prevent wrongful convictions.

Judges should submit medical and other expert evidence to a statutory test of its trustworthiness before a jury hears it, the Law Commission says.

Under the plans, judges in England and Wales would assess whether scientific and experience-based evidence is based on sound principles.

'Our proposed test would put experts on notice that they will be expected to provide the trial judge with evidence about the basis of their expert opinion,' the Law Commission says.

Chris Pamplin, of the UK Register of Expert Witnesses, said: 'I think experts should welcome these proposals.'

More than half of experts called before juries are doctors. In a consultation paper, the Law Commission, an advisory body that has 70 per cent of its advice accepted by ministers, says independent assessors could advise judges in difficult cases.

Judges would be trained to assess the reliability of scientific evidence and to intervene if experts overstep their knowledge.

Expert witnesses would undergo more robust accreditation to prevent 'charlatans and biased experts' from testifying.

Despite successful appeals in recent high-profile cases, expert evidence is still too readily admitted and a 'pressing danger' exists of both wrongful convictions and acquittals, the Law Commission warns.

Dr John Grenville, an expert witness in the Shipman trial, said a judge may test the reliability of evidence better than a jury. But it could cause problems if expert witnesses had to prove their reliability in a way acceptable to judges, he added.

Dr Rob Barnett, a member of the BMA's medico-legal committee, said safety would be improved if experts' credentials and evidence were assessed.

prisca.middlemiss@haymarket.com

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