Doctors must ensure witness evidence is objective

PRESS RELEASE

For immediate release: Tuesday, April 16 2013

Doctors who provide evidence in court are reminded of their duty to be objective regardless of who cited them to attend, says UK-wide medical defence organisation MDDUS.

MDDUS receive a number of calls from doctors in relation to acting as a witness in court. It can be a daunting prospect for those unfamiliar with court processes, but updated GMC guidance focuses on doctors’ obligations and responsibilities, whether attending as witnesses to fact or as expert witnesses.

The new guidance Acting as a witness in legal proceedings comes into force this Monday (April 22) and it reminds doctors that, when giving evidence, their overriding duty is to the court and not to those citing or instructing them. They must act independently and be open, trustworthy, objective and impartial.

“Doctors can quite understandably feel anxious about court appearances, but there are basic steps they can take to help things go smoothly,” says MDDUS medical adviser Dr Barry Parker.

“They should prepare beforehand by familiarising themselves with medical records or written statements already submitted. When giving evidence, they should listen carefully to the questions asked, give a clear answer, and then stop talking. There is no requirement to fill gaps in the conversation.

“Should additional information be required, a further question will be asked. It is perfectly proper to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t recall’ to any question where this is the truthful answer.

“Doctors acting as witnesses to fact should remember that, no matter what the nature of the case may be, they are not there to help one or other side win the case – they are simply there to assist the court in coming to a decision by providing evidence.”

The GMC guidance also provides specific advice for doctors who have agreed to act as expert witnesses. “Here, they are invited to provide an independent professional opinion on the case based on their expertise, without having been involved in the care of the patient in any way,” adds Dr Parker.

“They may be instructed in civil, criminal or regulatory procedures and their involvement is extremely important in informing the court.”

The GMC again reminds expert witnesses to remain objective and unbiased, and also to comment only on issues within their own professional competence. They should either decline to answer questions outside their competence, or answer to the best of their ability but indicate clearly that they feel the issue falls outwith their sphere of expertise.

“Experts can be asked to consider a number of different documents and guidelines over a period of time in the lead up to a court case and it can occur that their own view of the issues may change as matters progress,” adds Dr Parker. The GMC clearly recognises this, but reminds expert witnesses of their duty in such a case to ensure that those instructing them, the other party and the judge are all informed without delay.

“Similarly, there may be occasions when the expert recognises that there could be a range of expert opinion on a particular matter,” says Dr Parker. “Again, the expert has a duty to make this clear, and to indicate how he has arrived at his own particular view within this range.

“If any potential conflict of interest emerges in relation to the expert, this should also be declared without delay, so that the court may consider its importance.

“In summary, doctors acting as witnesses to fact or as expert witnesses perform an invaluable service to the court and, although doctors may be apprehensive about giving evidence, it is in most cases straightforward.

“Doctors working as a witness should familiarise themselves with the updated GMC guidance and call their medical defence organisation if they have any concerns or questions.”

Ends

For further information contact Richard Hendry on 0845 270 2034 or 07976 272266, or email rihendry@mddus.com.

Note to editors

MDDUS (The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland) is a medical and dental defence organisation providing access to professional indemnity and expert medico- and dento-legal advice for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals throughout the UK. For further information on MDDUS go to www.mddus.com.

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