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New standards for expert evidence in family courts announced

Consultation launched on exclusion of ‘so-called experts who are not up to scratch’

The Ministry of Justice has proposed introducing new standards for expert evidence adduced in family proceedings so that such evidence can be given only by qualified, experienced and recognised professionals.

The government says that for too long there has been an increasing trend in England and Wales for expert witnesses to provide unnecessary and costly evidence – in the form of further written statements, clarifications and additional court appearances. This, continues the Ministry of Justice, can cause major delays in child care cases and in the worst examples this has led to cases being forced to start again.

Under the new plans, for which there will be a consultation lasting nine weeks, experts who are well-qualified and experienced will continue to provide their service in advising the family courts – but (what it terms) 'the so-called experts who provide evidence which is simply not up to scratch' will be excluded.

Family Justice Minister Lord McNally said:

"Poor quality expert evidence can lead to unacceptable delays for children and their families.

"By putting standards in place we will ensure only the highest calibre of evidence is permitted in family proceedings.

"We want to ensure that evidence being put forward is more robust and that cases are resolved more quickly. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss."

This consultation is being jointly led by the Family Justice Council and follows the independent Family Justice Review by David Norgrove which identified weaknesses in the quality of evidence being put forward by experts at family proceedings involving children.

Dr Heather Payne, Chair of the Family Justice Council's Experts Working Group, which drafted the standards said:

"The standards are designed to improve the quality, supply and use of expertise to improve outcomes for children in the family courts. They are intended to help experts and the courts alike, to ensure that they are delivering the relevant and high quality opinions based on the best possible evidence which the family courts need to help them make decisions.

"They also seek to provide the courts and lawyers with clear guidance on how to ensure that expert evidence is sought from an expert of the appropriate discipline, with appropriate professional qualifications.

"The standards are a first step to promoting the more effective and intelligent use of expert evidence."

In the 12 months before October 2011, £52m of legal aid was spent on expert reports and this consultation is designed to tackle the costs and delays brought about through poor quality evidence.

The Government has been working to bring down the average time taken for care cases to be concluded to 26 weeks, to reduce the impact on children involved. The average has already been cut from over 56 weeks to 45 weeks and reducing the delays created by expert witnesses is a key stage in continuing that effort.

The proposals are intended to complement the introduction at the end of January 2013 of a new Part 25 of the FPR which was intended to streamline proceedings in family courts by reducing the number of expert witnesses who have to give evidence.

The consultation will run until 18 July 2013. The Government will decide on its next steps when the consultation responses have been considered. The consultation can be read here.