Doctors may be asked to give evidence in various tribunals – be they criminal courts, civil courts, coroner’s courts, or employment and mental health tribunals.
Doctors must remain honest and trustworthy when giving evidence, working within limits of competence and ensuring no documents are misleading. The GMC recommends all doctors take reasonable steps to check the information in any evidence they give, and never deliberately omit relevant information.
If called as a witness, a doctor should aim to provide impartial advice to the court. Doctors can be called as either an expert witness – giving independent opinions without any personal link to the case – or a professional witness – providing information gained in a role involved with the case in question. Doctors called to court will usually be put on notice, and asked by the court to attend at a specific time. If a doctor ignores a witness summons, they may be found in contempt of court. Any legitimate problems with a summons, such as conflicts of interest, may be raised with your professional protection organisation.
A doctor’s duty of professional confidence isn’t automatically waived by the call to give evidence. Confidential information should still only be given with the patient’s consent. Information must, however, be disclosed if ordered by the court.
Before going to court, doctors should
- review medical records,
- read their own report,
- find out how long they will be needed in court for,
- find out where the court is and how long the journey will take,
- clarify who has called you to attend,
- ensure cover arrangements are adequate, and
- make sure the medical records will be available on the day.
On the day of the summons, doctors should arrive with time to spare, bring medical records, if possible, and prepare for a long wait.
In both civil and criminal courts, the procedure plays out in the same way. The claimant will open with their version of events, their witnesses will present evidence and be cross-examined, and then the defendant presents their version. Once they have finished their turn, there are closing speeches from both, and a summation from the judge.
With criminal cases, the judge’s summation is followed by advice to the jury on the law to be applied. The jury will deliberate in private, and then present their verdict. The judge will determine the sentence if the jury convict the defendant.
In civil cases, the judge decides whether to side with the claimant or the defendant. The judge will also decide on the compensation due the claimant – if they are successful.
When a doctor’s turn to give evidence arrives, they will be escorted to the witness box. They will then be prompted to swear that they will tell only the truth. The first part of this will involve the examination-in-chief. This will involve the lawyer for the party which called the doctor to go through their evidence. The judge may also ask questions in order to further clarify the doctor’s evidence. The second part of the process is the cross-examination, during which the opposing lawyer will question the doctor in question, drawing attention to any contention. There then follows a re-examination by the lawyer that initially called the doctor, and then the judge has an opportunity to ask questions.
Giving a Good Performance
In order to successfully present evidence in court, a doctor should
- remain impartial to all parties,
- ask for clarification whenever necessary,
- listen to each question carefully and answer honestly,
- speak clearly and without jargon to the person asking the question,
- remain calm in the face of emotionally-charged questioning,
- raise concerns to the judge if a question feels inappropriate, and
- take as long as necessary to answer to the best of their ability.