The final report from the working group set up by the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, to look at the issues around medical experts in the family courts has now been published.
Mr. Justice Williams was appointed to chair the working group, with representation from the legal profession, Royal Medical Colleges and other interested parties. It was set up in 2018 following useful feedback from the family courts and the feedback highlighted issues with the availability of medical experts to report on the causes of injuries which were the subject of fact-finding hearings. Further surveys also identified a wider problem with the availability of medical and associated professionals, psychologists being a particular case in point. Expert evidence is often vital in helping to properly decide cases ,and so any reduction in the numbers of available can potentially cause serious problems.
Feedback from the working group on medical experts in the family courts
The report has proposed some new solutions for the challenges faced by expert witnesses – these are listed at the end of the report. A consultation on the areas covered by the working group closed in January of this year, incorporating the final feedback and resulting recommendations.
The President said that the report from the working group was a ‘most thorough piece of work’ making 22 recommendations aimed at reducing expert shortages. He added ‘Some of these recommendations include the development of online training resources, engagement of professional bodies, amendments to legal aid guidance in payment provision, as well as the requirement for greater efficiency in court paperwork and processes, and better local and regional co-ordination.’
A silver lining to covid-19?
He also said that he believed that the working group had determined a ‘silver lining in the COVID-19 cloud’ – in that the remote hearings which had been made necessary because of the pandemic ‘demonstrated real advantages in making attendance at court hearings less disruptive of clinical practice and also in the convening of multi-disciplinary meetings.’
The work of the group has already led to changes in the Legal Aid Agency processes that are expected to improve witness participation. The Family Justice Council is likely to be taking many of the recommendations forward and will be encouraging health – and other -professionals – to put their expertise to use in the family courts.
Reinvigorated expert witness workforce
The President continued, ‘It is my hope that a reinvigorated expert witness workforce will enable the Family Court to continue to deliver the best outcomes for children, young people and families. Mr. Justice Williams and I will be monitoring the implementation of these recommendations over the next 12 months to make sure we retain the quality and quantity of experts needed.‘