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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Expert advice

News that the Supreme Court in London has abolished immunity for expert witnesses will come as a blow to many us who had imagined that we knew our stuff.

For many years, experts in shipping were considered to be chaps from out of town, with slides. They were paid well, too, in the mistaken belief that free advice is worth what you pay for it. Removing the immunity traditionally enjoyed by such people could prove to be the thin end of the wedge.

The fear of being proved wrong has traditionally been enough to deter all but the most confident of experts. But now that the bar has been raised by the courts, expert witnesses will have to have the sort of confidence displayed by the American physicist Henry Rowland, who has been described as “the father of modern spectroscopy”. (‘Spectroscopy’ may or may not be a word, but certainly shouldn’t be).

While testifying as an expert witness in one particular trial, Rowland was asked during cross-examination what qualified him to serve in such capacity. "I am," he said, "the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion."

Later, a friend expressed surprise at this remark, and asked Rowland what had persuaded him to make such an extravagant claim. "Well,” he said, “what did you expect me to say? I was under oath.”


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