GPs taking on paid work as expert witnesses may be called to give evidence in civil claims, criminal cases, before the GMC, at coroners' courts, employment tribunals and on probate issues.
In civil claims and GMC investigations it is usual for medical experts to be experienced in acting both for defendant doctors and for patient claimants.
Medical expert witnesses are doctors with sufficient experience in their chosen field to give a reliable and informed opinion about the particular medical issues in a case. A GP with at least 10 to 15 years' experience in their field is likely to have the necessary background knowledge to become an expert.
Duties include writing case reports based on the medical records and witness statements and supporting their opinions with relevant literature.
Medical experts also discuss their reports with instructing solicitors and claims handlers and answer any further questions. They may need to meet the doctor a claim is against together with the barrister and solicitor and other experts.
The expert may meet their counterpart at an experts meeting to narrow down the issues and produce a joint statement. If the case reaches court, you may have to give oral testimony.
The MDU regularly instructs medical experts to defend claims and GMC investigations against members so we appreciate the qualities required.
The work requires strict adherence to the GMC's guidance Acting as an Expert Witness (2008) and to relevant legal guidelines. The courts generally take an extremely serious view of experts who fail to meet their obligations and, occasionally, allegations are made about a doctor's medico-legal work.
GPs wishing to work as expert witnesses are advised to:
- Be aware of the regulations and guidance. These are contained in the GMC's guidance and Part 35 of the Civil Procedure Rules (Experts and assessors), the Practice Directive supplementing these rules and the Civil Justice Council Protocol for the instruction of Experts to give Evidence in Civil Claims (June 2005).
- Clarify instructions if necessary. The GMC's guidance says that if you cannot obtain sufficiently clear instructions, you should not provide advice/opinions.
- Only comment on areas within your competence. Restrict statements to areas where you have relevant knowledge or direct experience. Make it clear if there is not enough information to reach a conclusion.
- Stick to deadlines. Litigation is strictly timetabled, delays can cause considerable problems and additional costs.
- Tell the instructing solicitor if you change your opinion or become aware of a conflict of interest.
- Dr Sharmala Moodley is MDU deputy head of claims handling, www.the-mdu.com