New cuts to the civil legal aid remuneration rates (pdf) that came into force on 2 December 2013 are deterring a significant number of professionals from acting as expert witnesses in the family courts.
According to an investigation broadcast on Monday night on BBC Newsnight, experts, such as doctors, psychologists and social workers are now paid less for their assessments under the new regulations. The fee for a child psychiatrist, for example, has dropped from £135 to £108 per hour and the hours experts can charge on a case have also been limited. A child psychiatrist can now only charge for a maximum of 25 hours per case.
David Jockelson of Miles and Partners family law solicitors, speaking on the programme, said that in addition to reducing their hourly rates, many expert witnesses would find their work compromised if they had limited hours in which to do it.
The cuts follow an amendment to the Family Procedure Rules in January that changed the test for admitting expert evidence from ‘reasonable' to ‘necessary'.
The Consortium of Expert Witnesses conducted a survey of its members which showed that 27% had stopped family courts work completely because of the changes. A further 9% said they planned to stop and 19% said they wouldn't lower their fees, they would insist on a higher rate.
Dr Judith Freedman, Child Psychiatrist and Consortium of Expert Witnesses to the family courts, told Newsnight: ‘Expert rates were cut significantly in October 2011, we never thought that they needed to be cut any further, some people said they were unable to work at the cut rates but most people found a way to continue working, but it is this further cut that we think is destructive.'
Following a consultation on the issue, in November the government announced it is also planning on introducing minimum standards for expert witnesses in children's proceedings (pdf). The Legal Aid Agency is now considering how it can make compliance with these standards a condition of public funding in children's proceedings. It is expected that the standards will come into effect in April 2014.
Experts and family lawyers have warned that the combination of the higher test for admitting expert evidence, the cut in fees and the new minimum standards could lead to a decline in availability of experts and impede efficient administration of justice.