A paper from the Medical Protection Society (MPS) has called a wider pool of medical expert witnesses in the Irish courts system.
This follows a recent warning from Mr Justice Maurice Collins in a Court of Appeal judgment that a significant change of culture on expert evidence was needed.
MPS, which provides support for 16,000 healthcare professionals in Ireland, said that this wider pool should be made up of clinicians actively practising in Ireland, who had undertaken expert-witness training.
The society said that the change was needed in order to increase the quality of expert reports, and help to drive out so-called ‘hired-gun bias’.
The paper – Your profession needs you. Supporting doctors to become expert witness – was launched at the Medico-Legal Society of Ireland’s Academic Day yesterday (27 February).
Doctors should be ‘active’
It says that high-quality education and training are important in raising standards, so that experts are clear on the expectations of the role and their duty to the court.
The organisation also said that established doctors, who were active in clinical practice, were best-placed to act as medical experts, as they understood the environments in which doctors worked.
MPS is calling on HSE to support doctors in undertaking expert-witness training, and to maintain a central list of experts.
Dr James Thorpe (MPS deputy medical director) said that medical expert opinion played a critical role in a range of criminal, civil, coronial, and regulatory processes.
“Given the importance of expert work, it is concerning that there are difficulties in finding appropriately qualified doctors to undertake it. Instruction often relies on word of mouth, and there is no central register,” he stated.
Dr Thorpe cited a 2016 Law Reform Commission report that highlighted conscious bias – where parties ‘shop around’ for an expert that fits their case.
“The barriers to undertaking expert work – including time constraints, and a wariness of and unfamiliarity with the legal system – mean that doctors who take on expert work are often those at the end of their careers, some of whom have been out of clinical practice for a considerable time,” he said.
Dr Thorpe called for encouragement and support for established doctors in Ireland who were in active clinical practice to provide expert opinion.