Neurology case sparks call for reform of expert witness system

THE SUCCESSFUL appeal of a man who studied neurology in prison to prove he was innocent of a child's murder highlighted the urgent need for changes in the system of expert witnesses, according to leading defence QC Michael Mansfield.

Kevin Callan was freed by the Court of Appeal earlier this month after it accepted that expert evidence given at his 1992 trial for killing his girlfriend's four-year-old daughter, who had cerebral palsy, was flawed.

Mansfield, who represented Callan at the appeal, says the Appeal Court originally refused Callan a hearing because it said he was conducting a “trawl for experts”.

He says: “I am very conscious now in the Court of Appeal that there is a different wind blowing and it is being strict about the number of experts. I keep hearing the phrase 'we cannot allow you to have a second bite of the cherry'.

“The difficulty is science is seen as written in tablets of stone. But it is highly subjective. If you look at all the miscarriages of justice in the past 10 years, 80 per cent have got an element of unreliable scientific evidence.”

He calls for a national independent forensic science service, properly funded with legal aid, and an institute of forensic science for research and training with a recognised register of experts.

The Academy of Experts, formed in 1987, runs an expert search service for the legal profession, with 1,500 accredited experts on its books.

Chair Michael Cohen, a barrister and expert witness in insurance matters, says: “I sit as an arbitrator hearing disputes and I consider some of the experts who appear before me to be hopelessly incompetent, not necessarily because they are not technically sound but because they do not understand the requirements of being an expert witness.”

He says problems could be eliminated by courts insisting that expert witnesses are properly qualified and are bound by a code of practice with disciplinary sanctions attached.