Posted on 9th November 2020 by Chris Makin

When lawyers wreck their case

In recent blogs I have gone on at some length about inadequate “experts”, and the damage they can do to your carefully prepared case.  Think of Prof Sir Roy Meadow, probably the most notorious example, the proponent of “Meadow’s Law” (one cot death is unfortunate, two are suspicious, three are murder) who pretended to be a statistician when giving evidence as a paediatrician in the murder trial of Sally Clark.  She was convicted, won her second appeal, but then died of alcoholic poisoning – utterly tragic.  Then we have Van Oord Ltd & Anr -v- Allseas UK Ltd in 2015, where Coulson J listed the twelve respects in which the expert had failed in his duty, including admitting that his opinions were no more than the assertions of his client, and – glory be! – admitting in oral evidence that he didn’t even agree with his own report.

More recently we have Andrew Ager, a favourite of the CPS and a so-called expert on voluntary carbon credits (me neither) who disagreed with a world expert on the other side, who had written the leading textbooks (which Ager hadn’t read, although he had once watched a video on carbon credits) and who had no professional qualification, and couldn’t even remember how many A levels he had passed (if any?).

With all these cases, and some which I have come across as a member of the Investigation Committee at The Academy of Experts, the expert was quite inadequate with serious consequences for the client, the prosecution and for justice generally.

But what if it was the instructing solicitor who got it wrong?  In a recent case, Akebia Therapeutics Inc and Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co Ltd -v- Fibrogen Inc,Arnold LJ sat as a high court judge because of the shortage of judges able to hear such very complex cases concerning medical research.  And he was quite scathing of the instructing solicitors, stressing many times that it is the duty of the instructing solicitor, not just the expert, to know CPR 35 and the Practice Direction, and to ensure for example that the expert attaches their CV to their report (basic!), and that there is nothing in the published literature by an expert which contradicts the opinions they express in the present case.

So when things go wrong with expert evidence it isn’t always the fault of the expert.  Much of what follows has actually happened, during my 30-year career as a forensic accountant and expert witness.  Of course I started in the bad old days when Lord Woolf was developing his ideas for Access to Justice and the Civil Procedure Rules, and many of the disasters I describe wouldn’t happen now.  Would they?

If you need a primer on how NOT to manage your expert, read on!

Choosing your expert

You of course know all the technicalities of your case, inside out.  You don’t need to share that with an expert; just sign them up and let them get on with it.  So don’t waste your time reviewing CVs of experts who could add value to your case; you are far too important for such menial tasks.  Give the job of finding an expert to the most junior lawyer or, better still, a trainee.  They don’t need to check whether an “expert” has any expert witness training, such as being a member at The Academy of Experts.  All they need to do is match the profession to the job, ask if the expert is available for the already-fixed trial (chose your expert as late as possible; it saves a lot of bother) and choose the cheapest of three.  But don’t let your intended expert know enough about the job for them to do a properly costed fee quote; tell your trainee to get a tight quote from the expert, and hold them to it.

Letter of engagement

If your chosen expert is a member of a professional body, they will issue to you their letter of engagement, setting out what they have agreed to do for you and what you must do to enable them to do the job.  Examples: they must not unreasonably withdraw from the assignment, you must provide them with all the evidence they will need, and you must advise them of court dates etc.

Of course, you will be far too busy to read such twaddle, so you will not get around to countersigning it.  An expert desperate for the work will not hold you to signing it, and you will not give any thought to the competence of the expert if he is so desperate for work that he is willing to work for you without any agreed terms.

Your instructions

You will be aware (because of course you know Part 35 inside out) that a letter of instruction is disclosable only if there is doubt about exactly what the instructions were.  So don’t bother to issue a letter of instruction; any half-decent expert will be able to work out for himself what needs doing.  So dump on him a full copy of your filing cabinet (preferably scanned, so that he has to spend half the night downloading and printing it all) and he’ll come up with the goods.

Selected evidence

Alternatively, it may be a good idea to prune the evidence, and send to your expert only those items which will help your client.  Don’t bother that the expert will list the evidence he has seen, which will reveal the gaps in his knowledge, and which won’t match up with the list from the opposing expert’s report; you can trust your expert to talk his way out of that later.

Expert reports

Don’t trust your expert to express his unvarnished opinions.  Whitehouse -v- Jordan, the Ikarian Reefer and CPR 35 are wrong when they say “The report of the expert must be, and must be seen to be, the independent product of the expert, uninfluenced as to form or content by the exigencies of litigation.”  No! No! No!  The expert’s report must say what you need it to say.  So make sure you see it in final draft form before it is exchanged, and make sure the expert makes the amendments on which you insist.

Pausing there, in the bad old days before PDFs and the like, I once did an expert report which the solicitor wanted to “improve”.  He had the whole thing retyped, cut out my signature and pasted it into his/my new report, and exchanged it before I knew anything about it.  Very naughty!

Expert meetings

The courts think that the purpose of expert meetings is to seek common ground.  Don’t be fooled!  Your aim must be to have your expert stress all your strong points and not be persuaded by anything the opposing expert has to say – though of course you will want to know what that expert has to say, so you can attack any strong points they have.

To be sure the meeting will go your way, have a long meeting with your expert just beforehand, and stress to him – time and time again – all the arguments you want him to make, and all those from the enemy which he must ignore.  And make sure your expert understands that the Joint Statement must include all the strong points which you hope will help your client to win.

Dates

In his management of the case, a judge will set down dates by which certain things must be done.  Some of these affect your expert: exchange of reports, meetings of experts, hearing dates etc.  Of course you will be far too busy to inform your expert of any of these dates, and of course he will be pleased to cancel appointments, holidays, court appearances on other cases…  Yours is the only game in town, isn’t it?

Oral evidence

You will be banking on your case being settled at mediation or a Part 36 offer, but regrettably some do run the whole way to a court hearing.  This is dangerous; your expert will have to give answers which you can’t control.  You will just have to pray he sticks to the story you have hammered in to him.  And if it goes wrong, you can always blame your expert.  That’s what they are for, isn’t it?

That’s the end of the lesson.  With a bit of luck, you won’t pay attention to any of it!

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