A matter of personal taste

The role of the expert witness in the presentation of planning related evidence to public inquiries is fundamental in winning over the confidence and respect of the appointed inspector.

In preparing and presenting the evidence, rebuttal evidence, and evidence to counter alternatives put forward by objectors, the expert witness must maintain credibility throughout which means maintaining a professional view that is both consistent and reliable.

Experts giving evidence on technical matters have the advantage that their proposals are based on scientific fact. Designers face the problem that their proposals are likely to be subjective.

While the design aspect is difficult to challenge professionally, it is often the aspect that members of the public choose to criticise.

The task of rebuttal may be made more difficult given the subjectivity of design appreciation and the need to maintain a clear view on the background and nature of the proposals.

To achieve a positive result, designers require a considerable degree of guidance from the lawyer acting on behalf of the client. But even when a strong working relationship develops between lawyers and designers as it undoubtedly will the frantic haste of attending to issues raised in the public inquiry process means that it is not always possible for designers to raise with lawyers their abilities to meet the demands.

While lawyers must maintain a general overview and retain information over a wide range of vastly different subjects, the subtle aspects of complex design issues may not always be instantly apparent to them, and may require a greater explanation to demonstrate their particular relevance.

In addition, it may not always be possible for designers to give instant answers on design, as design-related matters invariably require time to consider.

In consequence designers should be very wary of expressing off-the-cuff comments, especially when considering the visual impact of development on the local environment. It is here that the landscape architect's view is often challenged, and it is all too easy to be drawn into an extended debate.

Lawyers have a consuming sense of urgency to meet key stages in the inquiry, which can place undue pressure on expert witnesses, who are likely to have many other demands on their time.

This is made particularly difficult by the fact that designers have a duty of care to their clients, and seek to remain helpful at all times particularly where the input relates to a highly sensitive issue.

For designers, an unfortunate yet unavoidable consequence of the public inquiry system is that design evidence is presented in a stilted format and can lack some of the enthusiasm inherent in the creative process.

This is further com pounded by the need to prepare evidence, which may be the subject of several drafts, over several months. During this time the freshness and spontaneity of the original text can easily be lost.

It is fair to say that lawyers in these cases are only as good as their expert witnesses. Both parties must remain calm and professional and ensure that the evidence given is balanced and sound.

To achieve this, a clear understanding of the lawyers' and designers' strengths and weaknesses is needed.