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Using the Web to Find an Expert

Chris McWatters, of 5 King's Bench Walk, reviews the sources of information available on the web to help find suitable expert witnesses

image of chris mcwatters, 5 kings bench walk

Chris McWatters, 5 King's Bench Walk

The usual way for family practitioners to instruct an expert is by word of mouth – i.e. by asking a colleague if they know of anyone in the area of expertise required. However the web now offers an alternative approach, with a handful of websites that are routinely used by practitioners in all areas of law. These cannot hope to replace the word of mouth approach altogether, as it remains advisable to get at least some form of human reference as to how an expert will perform in court, as well as how sound they are considered in their area of expertise. But when your next of professional kin can't conjure up a user-friendly arboricultural consultant, an experts' website is a good place to start, and is very likely to speed up the search for one. Even if word of mouth does lead you to a couple of experts' names in whatever arcane field you're researching for the first time, a good way to check up on their background is by running their details through the search engines of some of the websites listed below. As any user will quickly come to recognise, however, these websites offer information of widely varying quality. Equally, variations in the quality of design make some much more navigationally manageable than others.

Perhaps the best initial search on an expert can be made at the Law Society's Directory of Expert Witnesses. This can be found on www.legalhub.co.uk (once there, click on the expert witnesses' directory). All 2600 experts listed on the site have been recommended by two qualified members of the legal profession. The listings incorporate the most comprehensive profiles, including headings for qualifications, specialisms, and experience. The experience headings include the number of reports that each expert has provided over the last three years, the number of instructions received by a solicitor per year, as well as the number of training courses attended. There is also a personalised career and experience heading, where the expert gives an account of his or her professional career thus far. However what appears to be lacking are links to any articles the expert may have written - which would be a good display case for their style of thinking.

The site itself is attractive if sober in design (run by Sweet & Maxwell), and relatively user-friendly, especially from the point of view of the family practitioner. You are instantly given the opportunity to search the database by specialism, which includes a family section. Having clicked on that, you are offered further subsections under headings from Child Abuse to Matrimonial Disputes. You can also search by geographical region or by name. Among other bonuses of the site is an article offering advice on choosing the right expert and a comprehensive code of practice.

www.Expertsearch.co.uk has 4500 experts listed on its site. Profiles are potentially as comprehensive in scope as those of the Law Society's site. They may include the number of instructions received as well as the number of court appearances made - although giving this information is not compulsory. However, there is a publications heading for each expert, which includes links to recent articles and to the expert's personal CV. Any listing may also include a stamp showing that the expert has been approved by the Law Society or a link showing he or she is a member of the Academy of Experts. If you are lucky, you may even get a photo of the expert at the top of the CV. It is reasonably easy to manoeuvre around the site, although the branches of categorisation are not as well organised as the Law Society's. Initially you are asked to give both county and region in your search, then to decide whether the expert you are searching for is medical or non-medical. Having made that choice, you are presented with an extensive list of different types of expert. But it lacks the helpful filtering of the Law Society, which quickly narrows down your search. The search engine itself is a little convoluted in design in that it invites both typed entry and scrolled entry for the same search - but you do not need an IT degree to work it out.

www.expertwitness.co.uk is a more international site, listing experts in Australia, Scotland and Ireland as well as England and Wales. The search engine is quite limited, only asking you for keyword or county, with subsequent search choices of location or relevance. However the location option doesn't actually list the experts according to location at all, with psychiatrists from London being listed next to one from Kent, and then later next to one from West Midlands. The expert profiles are quite limited, although the information contained is clearly the responsibility of the expert, and most of them include an attachment of their own personalised CV, which is not always targeted to a lawyer wanting to instruct them. The website blings with numerous flashing advertisements. There is also a searchline you can call on 0871 143 1411, where they claim to be able to come up with a suitable expert for you within 6 hours.

The Acadamy of Experts (www.academy-experts.org) has a home screen which, on first appearance, suggests it is primarily concerned with Cost Effective Dispute Resolution. However, a closer inspection reveals there is a list of experts too, all of whom have accreditation from the institution based at Gray's Inn (there are different tiers of membership according to the experts' competence and experience). The bore of this site is that you have to register before you can search, which involves typing in a password with open characters, so it's probably as well not to use the same password you use for bank accounts or other confidential information. The search engine has three boxes for different keywords. When I typed psychiatrist in one box, followed by London, only one entry came up - which does not actually reflect how many London psychiatrists are listed on the site. There's also no way of searching according to family law relevance. Information included on experts' profiles is clearly selected at the authors' discretion, most of them including a first person account of their professional biographical detail. A bonus of the site is that it includes a list of cases that are relevant to experts and expert evidence. It also includes a copy of the experts' code of practice, although this doesn't appear as comprehensive as the one included on the Law Society's website. However, the Academy's experts are offered extremely good training including on the code of practise and by practising giving evidence.

The UK Register of Expert Witnesses can be found on www.jspubs.com. This comes across as a subscription-only site, requiring £95 plus VAT to join. But you can also get limited free access to the site as a member of the public, which allows you 25 searches a day. You also have to register for this service. However, if your email address is a yahoo or hotmail one, the site won't allow you to go ahead with registration, as it claims a history of abuse from free email accounts. This is particularly frustrating if, having embarked on this process with a free email account, you are then refused: it seems quite impossible to re-register on the same computer with a different email address, since the site links your computer with the initial email address registered under. Once you have achieved the registration process, you are sent an obscure password which doesn't appear possible to change. The listings themselves are comprehensive, if a little daunting. If you type the word psychiatrist into the keyword search engine, you're offered more than 200 sub-categories to choose from. It is possible to restrict the search by location. The experts' profiles appear comprehensive, but you soon realise that before you can click on the most useful information (i.e references), you do, after all, have to cough up the full £95 plus VAT.

Very much heading in the right direction is www.xproexperts.co.uk, a relatively new website run by barristers. The advantage of this is they appear to have a sound idea of what advocates are looking for from an experts' website. From a navigational point of view, it is a little convoluted in design. However the search engine restrictions display a legal awareness, and can quickly focus your search to experts with previous experience of family cases. The profiles are even more extensive than those at the Law Society, and include information on whether the listed expert can be jointly instructed, as well as legal referees. The site also includes a link to the site's backdated newsletter, which incorporates references to cases and other expert-related articles. It also has a legal resources link, which includes, among other things, the Civil Justice Council Expert Witness Protocol, as well as the Family Law Practice Direction. The only current problem with the site is the relatively small number of experts it lists. However, this is bound to change when the experts get wise to xpro's quality sell.