The recent judgment of the English High Court in Meadows v General Medical Council [2006] EWHC 146 (admin) examined the impact of the well established principle of witness immunity on the powers of professional bodies to discipline their members in relation to evidence given in court.

Background

Sir Roy Meadow gave evidence in a number of criminal cases concerning child deaths, notably those of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings. As a result of those cases being overturned, it came to light that aspects of the statistical evidence Meadow had given were seriously flawed; in particular his assertion that the odds of two children dying of SIDS in a non-smoking household were 1 in 73 million.  Sally Clark's father therefore complained to the General Medical Council (GMC) who found Meadow guilty of serious professional misconduct and his name was removed from the medical register.

That decision was appealed to the High Court, with judgment being given in February 2006. In reaching his decision that the GMC had erred in its decision to remove Meadow from the register, Collins J directed himself on the principle of witness immunity in the context of professional disciplinary proceedings.

Witness Immunity

It is a well-established legal principle that witnesses are immune from civil proceedings in connection with evidence they have previously given in court.  This prevents a witness being pursued in an action for defamation or damages in respect of their evidence in earlier proceedings.  The rationale underlying the principle is that witnesses ought not to be deterred from giving evidence freely and honestly, and that they should give evidence without fear of reprisal in the form of legal proceedings.  This principle applies equally to both expert and lay witnesses (see Stanton v Callaghan [2000] 1QB 75).

But what of a witness who gives evidence but is subsequently prosecuted by his professional disciplinary body?  In the Meadows judgment Collins J considered that fear of such proceedings could be a strong deterrent for potential expert witnesses taking the witness stand.  While recognising that the question of whether witness immunity extended to disciplinary proceedings was not one that had been subject to any judicial scrutiny, Collins J expressed the view that: "not only is there no reason in principle why it should not apply to disciplinary proceedings such as those with which this appeal is concerned but every reason why it should so apply". He therefore held that the GMC did not have jurisdiction to take disciplinary action against Meadow in relation to the evidence he gave in Sally Clark's trial.

GMC Appeal

The GMC have appealed this decision, the case having been heard earlier this month.  Sir Roy Meadow's position will not be affected by the appeal.  Instead, the GMC are using the appeal to obtain clarification from the Court of Appeal regarding whether individuals who give evidence in court have immunity from disciplinary proceedings. 

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, intervened on behalf of a number of Government Departments and argued the case personally. Lord Goldsmith argued that: "Immunity for expert witnesses should not be an issue for the court to have to decide." In his view, such immunity could only arise were it to be sanctioned by legislation. 

He also considered that the High Court judgment was an illegitimate development of the common law, as the immunity would reduce a professional regulator's ability to investigate complaints, which for many is a statutory duty.

Judgment is awaited.

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