Experts whose evidence is ‘not up to scratch’ will be driven out of the family courts by reforms announced today by the Ministry of Justice.
It has opened a nine-week consultation on new national standards designed to raise the quality of experts in family courts and to get rid of ‘poor-quality’ and ‘time-consuming evidence which adds little value’ in helping judges reach a decision.
The move, to reduce the £52m spent on experts, is the latest stage of reforms to speed up the family justice system.
The new standards will mean that evidence provided in a family court can only be given by ‘qualified, experienced and recognised professionals’.
The ministry said that under its plan experts who are ‘well-qualified and experienced’ will continue to provide a ‘valuable service’ in advising the family courts – but the ‘so-called experts who provide evidence which is simply not up to scratch will be driven out’.
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.’
He said the government wants to ensure that evidence being put forward is ‘more robust’ and that cases are resolved more quickly.
The consultation is 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 FJC’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.’
She added: ‘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 up to 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 proposals will complement recent work by senior judges to ensure expert witnesses are only called when it is necessary.
The consultation will run until 18 July.