My experience at a seminar

My experience at a seminar

February 17, 2013

Went to a seminar on Friday.  The chair of a panel about Expert Witnesses was President of the ‘College of Legal Medicine’ and was proud of the name, although as someone pointed out to me, “You couldn’t have a College of Illegal Medicine!!”.  He made a couple of extraordinary statements.  He said he not only does not read any of the documentation  before the interview and examination (he’s a neurologist) but he doesn’t even read the letter of instruction until afterwards, the other thing he said that was confusing was that when you give an opinion you are expressing a bias? go figure.  He said that if he had any issues arising from reading the documentation he would call the person back.

As one of the panel said,’Ithink I have the intellectual capacity to read what someone else has read without necessarily having to agree with it’.  The lawyer on the panel was horrified,’you have no idea how much time we spend on those letters of instruction and how critical that you answer the questions we ask’.  The judge said he thought he was trying to be ‘provocative’.

I asked a question, prefacing my question by telling him I thought his opinion was very’idiosyncratic’.  He seemed quite pleased being called idiosyncratic so I told him’be in no doubt that I mean it in the most negative sense of the word’.  Well, there you are, poor students, poor claimants.

Anyway it reminded me of my early days of being an expert witness, who can we learn from and how do we pick the idiots. I was called to give evidence about a police officer who had been assaulted during his work and concussed. Later that day whilst intoxicated he had driven his car in a rampage around a car park smashing six other vehicles.  In the course of my evidence I used the term “diminished responsibility”.  There was an immediate uproar and the court was adjourned, the judge instructed the barrister for the defendant to find out from me what on earth I meant.  I was embarrassed and bewildered.  During the break, two very experienced psychiatrists told me, in effect, I was an idiot and way out of my depth.  I could only agree with them.  They made it clear that my use of the term “diminished responsibility” raised many issues and  didn’t I know that “it is not a defence in Victoria”.  Well I didn’t, but I was determined to learn something from this debacle, particularly because the defendant was found guilty and served 18 months.

At that time, and the situation has not changed, there was no formal training program in forensic psychiatry, particularly in the civil area.  Essentially one had to learn by doing and learn by one’s mistakes. I want this to change, I hope this website helps.


My experience at a seminar: one comment

  1. Byron Rigby Says:

    Fascinating. I love the forthright speech! Both in the comments and as described at the seminar. I can appreciate the issue of “diminished responsibility”, and the injustice of saying you were “out of your depth,” even though you agreed with it.

    At the time, you may have been “out of your depth” legally, but not necessarily medically. A legal term may also make sense medically, as I believe that it did then. No one has copyright over the words “diminished” and “responsibility,” or over the two together. Similarly the term “eggshell skull” is a legal term – but it is also very real medically, in osteogenesis imperfecta.

    And of course, you were not making a legal defence – that is the barrister’s job.

    The whole area of “mens rea” (“mental fault” now, I think) is fascinating.


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