Spoilt for choice

Six months after its launch, the Expert Witness Institute has received nearly 400 applications for individual membership and is well on the way to its first year target of 500.

The Law Society and Bar Council are among the six professional bodies to have joined to date, along with three corporate organisations. The institute has written to the top 20 solicitors' firms asking if they would like to become founding sponsors for a one-off £2,500.

Sir Michael Davies, the retired High Court judge chairing the institute, says: “Our mission statement is to encourage, train and educate experts and to improve and maintain their standards and status. But we also want to persuade solicitors and barristers to become associate members in order to encourage and develop their contact with expert witnesses.”

At present, the institute does not feel that it has enough expert members to provide a register for solicitors wanting to find a particular specialist. It hopes to be able to do so by the autumn, but has still to decide whether it will be open or for members only.

At the institute's launch last November, questions were raised about the need for another expert witness organisation, given the existence of the 10-year-old Academy of Experts and the smaller Society of Expert Witnesses.

Michael Cohen, the barrister chairman of the academy, says he is still concerned the “proliferation” of organisations could lead to confusion over standards and systems of accreditation. But Davies argues: “The AA was formed in the early days of motoring after the RAC, and nobody would say there should only be one motorist organisation. We knew the demand was there.”

The other contentious issue has been the institute's links with Bond Solon, which trains expert witnesses. Two of the company's courses have been validated by the institute, which rents one of the rooms in Bond Solon's London offices. Also, the company's managing director, Catherine Bond, is the institute's part-time company secretary.

“Bond Solon conceived the idea for the institute and its input has been very great indeed,” Davies says.

“But from the day of the launch, the institute has been responsible for the costs of the use of any of the company's services. The aim is to have our own premises once it becomes financially possible.

“A lot of early correspondence questioned the institutes' links with Bond Salon, but that has stopped now. We are nobody's monkeys.”

The institute is currently drafting model terms of engagement, a code of conduct, and an expert's declaration for a report, as was recommended by Lord Woolf in Access to Justice. Its findings will also be used to set up criteria to cover meetings of opposing experts, also as proposed by Woolf.

It is also hoping to run a pilot basic law course for experts, which will be drawn up by academics, in the summer.

The institute, which employs one part-time and two full-time members of staff, is already financially viable with the money it received from its founding sponsors and annual membership fees – £350 for corporate bodies and £100, plus £40 joining fee, for individuals. Fees for professional bodies depend on the number of members.

One solicitor who has applied to join the institute as an associate member is Tim Constable, a commercial litigation lawyer with BP Collins in Gerard's Cross, Buckinghamshire. “I believe it will provide an excellent forum for the challenges ahead for expert evidence,” he comments.

Representatives of professional bodies are studiously even-handed in their support for both the institute and the academy, and there is a widely-held belief that there is room for both bodies.

Suzanne Burn, secretary of the Law Society's civil litigation committee, says: “It is early days, but the institute does seem to have made its presence felt and the membership is quite encouraging. My involvement is with its working party, which is encouraging professional bodies to have their own codes of conduct, training and accreditation. This seems to be a very sensible way forward.”

Lord Woolf, who is president of the institute, has written in its first newsletter: “The institute has made remarkable strides within a short space of time, confirming the view that expert witnesses have a need for the services it offers. This does not involve any criticism of the existing bodies which have served experts well, merely that there is a need for complementary facilities and a greater choice of services than existed previously.”