Man of the match

Upheavals lie ahead for expert witnesses, but the new chairman of the Expert Witness Institute (EWI) will have no trouble keeping his eye on the ball: he used to be a soccer journalist.

But Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, who still counts "watching and reporting on Association Football" among his hobbies, is better known as a tiger in lawyer's robes.

He is also "a sensible bloke", according to one High Court judge, and on this assessment, is well-qualified to oversee the EWI's aims of improving the professionalism of the growing army of expert witnesses, whose contribution to legal system has often increased rather than diminished conflict and cost.

Sir Louis has chaired 10 major public inquiries in the last decade, including those into the death of Jasmine Beckford in 1985, of Kimberly Carlile in 1987, and the allegations of ill-treatment at Ashworth Hospital in 1991. His other work has proved him to be a man of seemingly Renaissance proportions.

While occupying such worthy roles as chair of the Mental Health Act Commission (1987-94), Sir Louis seemed to also like his martinis shaken, not stirred: his inquiries in the 1980s into arson and political corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and into the shipment of arms and ammunition into Colombia, had an Ian Fleming-like ring to them.

Now, at 71, age may have forced his retirement from the bench, but his name remains synonymous with the idea of British justice at its best. His contribution to the expert witness industry will be squeezed between inspections of prisons in Northern Ireland, as government-appointed Independent Commissioner for the Holding Courts, and his role as national chairman of Victim Support. The latter draws to a close at the end of this month. "I was looking for something else to fill the gap," Sir Louis says, candidly. He is genuinely committed to the need for reform in the field, not least to clean up the tarnished hired gun reputation of expert witnesses.

Then, of course, there is the likely Government implementation of the Woolf Report, including the controversial proposal for court-appointed experts. "I've always been alive to the problem of expert evidence, and I've always been intrigued by it," Sir Louis says. "It's opinion-based, so is quite different from other types of evidence, and is rather more problematic."

Sir Louis will not be a mere figurehead. He has a clear view on the shortcomings of experts, stemming back to the mid-1970s Confait inquiry into the case in which three boys were found guilty of a murder in Lewington. "The case turned on the time of death,when rigor mortis set in," he says. The fact that the convictions were quashed "showed the experts got it wrong".

Sir Louis took over as chair of the EWI board of governors on 7 November, when Sir Michael Davies stepped down a year after founding it following widespread dissatisfaction among leading experts over the lack of standards, and the need for a proper professional body.

Master of the Rolls Lord Woolf also retired as president and is now a patron of both the Institute and its rival, the Academy of Experts expected to support the EWI's aims.

Sir Louis, Lord Woolf, and his successor Lord Mustill, the distinguished retired Law Lord, will have much to discuss before the extent of the Government's support for the Woolf proposals is announced. "One of the big issues is how far those will impact on expert evidence," says Sir Louis. "Also in question are the effects of Government proposals to abolish legal aid in monetary claims cases, and the issue of contingency fees."

Questioned on his intentions, he says, "I hardly know. I've only been in the job for five days." But Tony Holland, a former Law Society president and an EWI board member, says: "He'll want to take a proactive approach, but it won't be run as a personal fiefdom."

Sir Robin Jacob, High Court judge and an old friend, describes Sir Louis as "an ebullient character with a fierce sense of justice" whose "wide experience of the world" included being The Guardian's legal correspondent and a football writer for The Observer. Sir Louis was banned from South Africa for his attacks on apartheid in the 1960s. "He speaks his mind, and I'm sure he will be effective," Sir Robin says, with a grin.

Whatever Sir Louis does, he is likely to be backed up firmly by the EWI board and members, including the Law Society and the Bar Council.