Expert witnesses 'pressured to change evidence'

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The Independent Online

One in 10 expert witnesses has been pressured by a lawyer into changing evidence before a case has gone to court, a survey has revealed. The finding supports what many people have suspected for a long time - that doctors, accountants and other professionals come under enormous duress to alter their opinions to help the side that is paying for them.

One in 10 expert witnesses has been pressured by a lawyer into changing evidence before a case has gone to court, a survey has revealed. The finding supports what many people have suspected for a long time - that doctors, accountants and other professionals come under enormous duress to alter their opinions to help the side that is paying for them.

Since the case of the Ikarian Reefer in 1993, all experts are under a duty to give an independent opinion to the court without first considering the interests of the party instructing them. In the Ikarian Reefer case a fire that destroyed a ship was clearly an act of arson, the court ruled.

But the former Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, said the expert evidence adduced by the ship's owner to show otherwise was clearly not independent. His ruling was given judicial backing by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice who was the Master of the Rolls at the time, when he set down new rules for court procedure that came into force in April 1999.

The survey of 173 expert witnesses found that nearly one in 10 had been asked to alter their opinion in return for the opposing expert altering theirs so that the case could have a quick result. Mark Solon, a director of Bond Solon, the expert witness training company that did the survey, said this was unacceptable.

He said: "In the world of conditional fees where solicitors have a vested interest in the outcome of the trial it seems some are not complying with the new court rules."

The survey, undertaken at a Bond Solon-organised conference attended by 300 expert witnesses, found that a substantial proportion of those who admitted coming under pressure to change their evidence indicated that they had succumbed.

One expert said: "Some give and take is inevitable." Another added: "Isn't it called compromising and agreeing the issues?" Others said the thought of having to justify their opinions in court enabled them to rebuff the approach.

Under Lord Woolf's civil procedure rules, lawyers are encouraged to use just one agreed expert, to speed litigation and reduce costs. But the survey suggests that some experts will need to deepen their resolve if they are to give expert opinion to the court that can be relied on to be truly independent, Mr Solon said.