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Q&A: Receiving a summons as a medical witness

Dr Richard Brittain answers questions for GPs called to court for a patient’s hearing

What are the different types of medical witnesses?

There are two types of witnesses. As an independent expert witness, you are called to give an independent professional opinion on a case, based on your expertise, without having been involved in the patient’s care in any way.

Your role is to provide evidence that assists the court and you are reminded to be objective and impartial regardless of who asked you to attend.

As a professional witness of fact, you are directly involved with the patient in the case and provide evidence of your clinical findings, observations and actions.

What is expected of me in court and how should I prepare?

Doctors acting as a witness perform an invaluable service to the court, with evidence provided assisting the court in coming to a decision. It is important to prepare beforehand by familiarising yourself with medical records, reports or written statements already submitted.

When giving evidence, you should listen carefully to questions asked and then give a clear and concise answer. Take your time answering questions and try to avoid using medical jargon as people who do not have a medical background may rely on your advice and evidence to help them make decisions.

What if I am asked to comment on issues outside of my competence?

You should either decline to answer questions outside your competence, or answer to the best of your ability but indicate clearly that the issue falls outside of your sphere of expertise.

It is perfectly proper to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t recall’ to a question, as long as that is the truthful answer.

What happens if I am asked to disclose confidential information about a patient?

You must disclose information if the court orders you to do so, however, you should seek consent from a patient before disclosing confidential information.

If they refuse consent, you may still be obliged to disclose the information if your overriding duty to the court and the administration of justice means that you must disclose the information.

Am I obliged to attend?

It can be a daunting prospect for doctors called to provide evidence in court. However, those who are served with a witness summons must attend the court or risk being held in contempt of court and face potential GMC sanctions.

It will be a matter for the court to determine if there is a reason why a witness should not give evidence in court.

Dr Richard Brittain is a medico-legal adviser for the MDDUS.

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