Porky pies and other yarns

Matt Barnard reports on some of the slips of the tongue and other lapses of judgment in expert witness cases.

Asking any group of professionals to recall the most amusing incident that has happened to them during their work can be a very revealing process. Not only does it tell you something about the nature of the system in which they work, but it also says something about the group in question. For expert witnesses, this is particularly true, and the responses drawn in a survey by training firm Bond Solon make for interesting reading.

As one might expect, judges don't come out to well. One witness recalls a judge in a textile case asking after several days, “Can you tell me what is yarn?” Another judge during a complex adoption case was reported as being drunk. “Luckily with encouragement from the barrister and myself, he came to the right decision” the doctor concludes.

One judge demonstrated his ignorance of modern political correctness by reducing the compensation claim of a professional woman because she would stop working to have children, while a judge who had been trying rape cases for 20 years reported that he had never heard of post traumatic stress disorder.

Few expert witnesses find themselves amusing, though one says somewhat mysteriously that the most amusing incident in their career was “being stuck in Norfolk without a toothbrush”, which on a scale of amusing incidents must rank fairly low. Another describes an attempt to get to Paris which was hampered by the fact that he forgot his passport. The journey eventually took 22.5 hours there and back, cost £150 extra in cab fares without him contributing a word to the case.

One expert recalls that on his CV he mentioned he was vice-chairman of a county pig discussion group, which prompted a Department of Education inspector to ask him if pigs really did undertake discussions. Some reports are so intriguing that it is a shame they are anonymous one-liners. One female expert witness describes kissing the usher to demonstrate the difference between real and fake intimacy, while another explains the difficulty of trying to discuss in dispassionate terms during a noise nuisance case how loud a couple making love were. Another says simply: “Being asked to measure an erection.”

Inevitably, however, it is the clients that make up the bulk of the stories. Occasionally it is intentional, including one wit who replied to Cape Town judge asking him why he was constantly seeing him in court, said: “Don't blame me, your honour, if you don't get any promotion!”

But it's the client shooting themselves in the foot that forms the bulk of the survey. A client with learning disabilities was caught making an obscene telephone call after he ran out of money and asked the victim to call him back on his home phone number, while a Liverpool builder told a judge under oath that he would not tell a lie “unless he had to”. He lost the case.

Rather more cunning was a man caught after a hair-raising car chase through Swansea who was found to have his pockets stuffed with an illicit, white substance. When asked if he had anything to say, he replied: “They were not my trousers.” Another car driver mounted his defence on the basis that he “forgot he'd been banded from driving”.

A very common theme is that of the personal injury claimant who inadvertently demonstrates their fulsome health, including one plaintiff claiming to be “destroyed” by lumbar pain being shown on video dressed in a pink tutu and dancing on roller blades to the tune of YMCA. Another man, who won over £100,000 for a damaged hand, had “a grip reminiscent of Mike Tyson” when he shook hands with the expert at the end of the case.

But clearly the stress can get to everyone. One expert recalls watching in disbelief as a disgruntled client stripped off in front of joint experts and took a shower to discredit the opinion that it leaked, which she failed to do.

However it is sobering to remember that despite the opportunity for hilarity, many of these incidents happened to people who didn't find them amusing, and in fact found the whole process deeply frustrating and disturbing.