Expert Witnesses

Oral Answers to Questions — Solicitor-General – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 15th March 2007.

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Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin 10:30 am, 15th March 2007

If he will review the role of expert witnesses in criminal prosecutions.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

The straight answer is yes. A number of reviews are being carried out of the role of expert witnesses and some have already been published. There have also been several initiatives recently to improve the use of expert witnesses in criminal cases.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Does the Solicitor-General agree that the judicial system, in particular the Crown Prosecution Service, has a duty of care to ensure that expert witnesses are who they say they are? If so, what are his comments in the light of the recent bogus Dr. Morrison case, which has led to the need to review more than 700 cases? Many people may be in prison as a result of his so-called expert evidence, so what new measures will the Government put in place to ensure that expert witnesses have the qualifications they claim to have?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Gene Morrison case is of serious concern. The police investigation into any miscarriages of justice is under way and my office is being kept informed about it. I think that case was exceptional, but it is one that underlines the importance to all parties of ensuring that they look critically at the evidence of expert opinion. A number of reforms are being made. New criminal justice procedure rules put in place last November are now coming into play; the post of forensic science regulator has been set up; and the Attorney-General's review of shaken baby syndrome cases is under way and will have important recommendations. In accord with the view of the Court of Appeal—the recommendations of his honour Sir Igor Judge—new CPS guidance on the use of expert evidence will ensure that, whereas expert evidence has been wholly relied on in the past, it should not be in the future, and that corroborative evidence which is independent of the experts should be sought. That new approach will help to deal with some of the problems with expert evidence we have experienced in a number of cases in recent years.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

At a time when criminal legal aid costs are under close scrutiny, will my hon. and learned Friend consider looking closely at the joint instruction of experts in criminal cases? Huge expenditure is incurred on expert witnesses and it is increasing at a rapid rate.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

My hon. Friend is right; there is considerable expenditure in relation to expert witnesses. We need to ensure that cases are properly decided and experts are able to give their view, but that it is done in a sensible and cost-effective way. Following the recommendations, part of the guidance on expert witnesses is that they should be prepared to have peer review of their findings and that there should be exchanges between experts on either side of the case about the evidence they bring forward. We should attempt to ensure that, where possible, there is as much consensus as possible about the expert evidence that goes before a court and a jury. In that way, it is to be hoped that we will reduce the amount of time needed for expert witness evidence in court cases.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Is the Solicitor-General aware that real concern remains among both judiciary and practitioners about the length of time it frequently takes to obtain authorisation from the legal aid authorities to commission expert reports; about the delays in commissioning that often occur once authorisation has been obtained; about delays in disclosure of reports between the parties; and then about the Crown being able to instruct its own experts? Will the Solicitor-General discuss with the appropriate Departments and agencies what can be done to speed up the process of obtaining expert evidence, which, as he knows, also has an impact on the listing and expedition of trials?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Solicitor General, Law Officers' Department

It is the case that we need to ensure that court proceedings are speeded up more generally, not just in relation to experts. When we came into office it was clear that the courts system was struggling and unable to cope with the sheer volume of cases before the courts. Things have improved, but there is still a lot more work to be done. There are issues in relation to legal aid. We have to ensure that expert evidence is really needed before legal aid is granted and that there are proper exchanges and disclosure. The new guidance will enable the sharing of expert evidence, and exchanges between experts to take place, and I hope that that approach will result in less delay in the future.