Crackdown on expert witnesses

Judges given new power to test credibility of specialists who testify in court cases

Scientists, doctors and other experts are to be stopped from giving misleading evidence in court after a series of miscarriages of justice involving unreliable testimony, under proposals published today.

Tough new rules will give judges greater powers to test the credibility of experts and, where necessary, exclude their evidence from juries.

The move follows a number of high-profile cases in which expert evidence has led to the wrongful conviction of innocent people.

Under proposals published by the Government's law advisory body, judges would have a "gate-keeping" role to stop "untrustworthy" evidence being heard in court.

The most troubling case in recent years was that of solicitor Sally Clark who was convicted of murdering her two infant sons after a jury heard that the chances of the babies dying natural deaths was one in 73 million.

That statistic was later shown to have "grossly" misrepresented the chance of two sudden deaths within the same family from unexplained but natural causes. Sally Clark had her convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2003 but never recovered from her ordeal and was found dead at her home in 2007

The Law Commission of England and Wales, which publishes its consultation paper today, sets out a number of preliminary proposals to prevent a repeat of cases like that of Sally Clark.

The commissioners say: "More worrying still, it may be that the examples given represent the tip of a larger iceberg. It has been said that much other forensic scientific evidence relied on in criminal proceedings has not been properly validated, which suggests there is at least a significant risk that some evidence is not sufficiently reliable to be admitted."

They point to "several recent cases" which suggest there is a real, ongoing problem which demands an urgent solution: "It would appear expert evidence is sometimes admitted too readily and that, notwithstanding a number of successful and highly publicised appeals concerning the reliability of expert opinion evidence, there continues to be a pressing danger of wrongful convictions."

Some so-called experts have also turned out to be acting fraudulently.

Notorious examples of fraudulent "expert" witnesses who have been convicted in recent years include Godwin Onubogu (a bogus medical doctor, convicted in 1998), Barian Baluchi (a bogus psychiatrist, convicted in 2005) and Gene Morrison (a bogus psychologist, convicted in 2007).

Professor Jeremy Horder, the commissioner leading the project, said: "The parties in criminal trials are relying increasingly on the evidence of expert witnesses. Expert evidence, particularly scientific evidence, can have a very persuasive effect on juries.

"It is vital that such evidence should be used only if it provides a sound basis for determining a defendant's guilt or innocence.

"There have been miscarriages of justice in recent years where prosecution expert evidence of doubtful reliability has been placed before Crown Court juries.

"There may also have been unwarranted acquittals attributable to such evidence. We want to ensure the criminal courts have the means to authenticate expert evidence and be satisfied the information before them is sound."

One of the Law Commission's suggestions, although not a formal proposal, is for a court-appointed assessor to help the judge establish the reliability of and credibility of the expert testimony.

Another would see the establishment of a regulatory framework for expert witnesses.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power