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Family experts’ standards are vaguely familiar, as are the awful figures for maternity failings

Your Expert Witness blog logoThe much-heralded standards for experts in the family courts were unveiled simultaneously by the joint response of the MoJ and the Family Justice Council, and by Lord McNally in an address to the Bond Solon Expert Witness Conference on 8 November. There are 11 of them in all, and for a document that can have a far-reaching effect on the delivery of justice for children they seem to the lay reader to be a little vague.

The first standard, for instance, requires the expert’s area of competence to be “appropriate to the issue(s) upon which the court has identified that an opinion is required, and relevant experience is evidenced in their CV”, while the second requires them to be “active in the area of work or practice, (as a practitioner or an academic who is subject to peer appraisal), has sufficient experience of  the issues relevant to the instant case, and is familiar with the breadth of current practice or opinion”.

True, the requirements get a little more stringent further on, with a requirement that where the expert’s profession is regulated by a statutory body they should have appropriate licences and where it isn’t can demonstrate membership of professional bodies. The idea that anyone who is not so qualified would be employed as an expert witness would be shocking to most people.

Two areas where the standards come in for most stick, however, are in regard to feedback and funding. A requirement for the seeking of feedback from specific sources was dropped in favour of a more generalised need to seek some kind of feedback as part of CPD. As Mark Solon of Bond Solon points out, who is going to provide that kind of feedback? Lawyers won’t (unless they get paid for it), judges can’t (for fear of generating an appeal) and other experts haven’t the time.

On funding the joint response pointedly says nothing about legal aid, the source of much of the funding hitherto, on the basis it is just that – a joint response – and responsibility for legal aid rests solely with the MoJ.

As the reviewer in the Solicitors’ Journal points out, that is: “A response unlikely to be viewed as satisfactory by many family lawyers at this time of significant and wide ranging change to the family justice system.”

• It’s not, apparently, just on the provision of language services to the courts and the contract to deliver prisoners to court that the MoJ is falling foul of parliamentary committees and its executive agencies. On 12 November the National Audit Office published two reports challenging all government departments and their private-sector contractors to “…work together more effectively in the taxpayers’ interest and to address the issues behind the current lack of confidence in government’s use of contractors”.

The figures that emerge show that in 2012/13 the MoJ spent £647m with the four major contractors included in the reports. That was second only to the Ministry of Defence. That in itself is worrying – that the MoD spent over £647m on private-sector contracts! So, in addition to the prospect of Chinese companies being involved in the development of a new nuclear programme and the court system becoming clogged up by translators failing to turn up to speak for defendants who aren’t there, we have the Defence Ministry substantially staffed by privateers. There used to be a name for that sort of thing.

• Those figures dwarf the £482m the NHS spends a year on insuring its maternity services against medical negligence claims. Claims have rocketed over the past few years – in contrast to the number of midwives, despite a pledge by Dave before the last election. The findings were also published by the National Audit Office, on 8 November. It appears that medical negligence claims are the only growth area in the PI sector, and the awful and saddening escalation shows no sign of abating.

Chris Stokes

Last Updated on Thursday, 21 November 2013 19:07