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New national standards for expert evidence in family courts

The Ministry of Justice has announced the introduction of new national standards which, it says, will raise the quality of expert evidence in family courts and end unnecessary delays to be implemented for April 2014.

Justice Minister Lord McNally, speaking at a conference for expert witnesses, said:

“It is important that expert witnesses are used effectively in deciding the future of vulnerable children.

“These new standards put the welfare of children at the heart of the system, so only the highest calibre evidence is permitted and cases are resolved quickly.”

The MoJ has said that the latest measures tackle one of the biggest causes of delays –  (what it describes as) the costly and unnecessary commissioning of additional written statements, clarifications and court appearances by expert witnesses.

According to the MoJ, the standards, which have been developed in partnership with the Family Justice Council, will mean that only qualified, experienced and recognised professionals will be able to give evidence as expert witnesses in family proceedings relating to children.

Heather Payne, the Paediatrician member of the Family Justice Council and chair of its Experts Working Group which drew up the standards, said:

“I am delighted that the standards received such strong support from so many professional and regulatory bodies representing the wide range of experts who give evidence in family proceedings. I feel that this demonstrates a high degree of consensus among experts that court outcomes for children can be improved using clear standards of best practice as part of a framework to promote quality assurance of the expert evidence provided in family cases.

“The standards are designed to improve quality, supply and use of expert evidence through peer review and benchmarking, support for multidisciplinary learning, and sanction of poor practice. In many cases, expert evidence is vital to help the courts reach the difficult decisions they are required to make. These standards are an important step forward in ensuring that the courts have access to the high quality expert evidence which they need. The FJC plans to continue working with our professional colleagues to continue this quality improvement process across all fields of expertise.”

The MoJ expects the new standards to be implemented from April 2014.  It says that the standards include ensuring the expert:

  • Has knowledge appropriate to the court case.
  • Has been active in the area of work or practice and has sufficient experience of the issues relevant to the case.
  • Is either regulated or accredited to a registered body where this is appropriate
  • Has relevant qualifications and has received appropriate training
  • Complies with safeguarding requirements.