The Ministry of Justice has announced standards to raise the quality of expert witnesses in family court cases.
The ministry said that measures are designed to tackle the ‘costly and unnecessary’ commissioning of additional written statements, clarifications and court appearances by experts, which it said is one of the biggest causes of delay in child care cases.
The standards, developed in partnership with the Family Justice Council will mean only qualified, experienced and recognised professionals will be able to give evidence as expert witnesses in family proceedings relating to children.
They include ensuring the expert has knowledge appropriate to the 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; has relevant qualifications and has received appropriate training and complies with safeguarding requirements.
The standards, which are expected to be implemented from April 2014, follow on from other measures designed to speed up the family courts, that the ministry said has reduced the average time taken for care cases from over 56 weeks to 41 weeks.
The Children and Families Bill will next year bring in a 26-week time limit for care proceedings, which some practitioners and judges have criticised as being too restrictive.
Family justice minister Lord McNally 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.’
Heather Payne, the paediatrician member of the Family Justice Council and chair of the experts working group which drew up the standards, said: ‘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.'