An expert witness is someone hired by a law firm, or sometimes directly by the Court, to explain matters that are outside the area of the law itself. Expert witnesses are used in civil and criminal cases, in fields ranging from food preparation to medicine, engineering to staff training. Two typical scenarios:
- A woman sues a salon, claiming permanent skin damage from a procedure its staff performed. An FE college lecturer in beauty therapy is retained as an expert witness to explain what chemicals are used in this process, and whether these could cause the damage alleged if used inappropriately.
- A building collapses during construction. A lecturer in structural engineering provides a report to a law firm examining whether the plan or construction methods contributed to the event.
Obviously, having a degree in a subject and being recognised for your expertise by being paid to teach about it gives an academic an excellent background for this kind of work. The work is relatively well-paid by academic standards, and can fit in well with your teaching and research schedule if carefully managed.
What being an expert witness is like?
Typically, an expert witness prepares a report on field-specific details of a case. Usually this report goes to either defense or opposing counsel, and is used to help them prepare their case. Sometimes both sides retain experts—and sometimes these experts are asked to work together to prepare a report detailing what they agree on, and any points of disagreement. Occasionally experts work directly for the Court, usually regarding specialist areas like criminal responsibility.
It doesn't happen in every case, but expert witnesses can be asked to testify as well. Testimony is always limited to just their area of expertise, not the law.
It is important to remember that your duty as an expert is to the Court. You must act as an unbiased participant, not “for” the defense or prosecution, no matter who has retained you.
How to get started.
There are expert witness referral forms and registries, but most experts are hired via word of mouth. Have a look online at recent UK court cases involving your specialty, and send a CV and cover letter to firms representing both sides. Follow up with a phone call if possible.
The UK Registry of Expert Witnesses (www.jspubs.com) provides some free online information, and regular books and newsletters to members, as do some competitors. Some other European countries have official registries which you must join, but the UK does not.
Avoid common pitfalls.
You must clear your work with your employer. In some cases, you can carry it out through a university-managed consultancy firm, which may have tax and administrative advantages.
Always make sure your reports state that you are speaking in your personal capacity rather than for your employer, unless your employer agrees otherwise.
You will need to carry professional indemnity insurance as well. Special plans are available for expert witnesses in the UK.
Law forms, especially those relying on Legal Aid, can be slow to pay. Make sure you stay on top of invoices and late payments.