Medical experts and the law: Safeguarding children, the public and the profession

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Abstract

Paediatricians working in child protection are sometimes required to act as expert witnesses in legal proceedings. Given the significant influence of opinion evidence on the jury, it is imperative that they understand their responsibilities to the court in this medico-legal interface and recognise their boundaries of expertise. Recent cases in the United Kingdom and in Australia have thrown the spotlight on paediatricians working as forensic experts in legal proceedings which has led to much public scrutiny and intervention by medical disciplinary bodies placing practice sanctions on child protection paediatricians. These decisions have had a significant impact on the workforce, with fewer paediatricians and those in training now willing to work in the field because of fears of disciplinary sanctions being instigated by those adversely affected by unfavourable forensic opinions. This article includes a detailed summary of these cases including excerpts from legal judgments, which highlight critical issues for the expert witness, which have had a significant impact on individuals, the profession and impacted on public confidence in the profession. In Australia, it is timely that we reflect on these lessons learnt and look to development of educational standards and forensic credentialing to enable continuity of a skilled paediatric workforce in child protection.

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