Thursday, 17 September 2009
RSPCA EXPERT WITNESSES ARE BIASED
COURTING DISASTER: ETHICS WARNING FOR WITNESS VETS.
VETERINARY surgeons are being urged to act "professionaly, ethically and morally" when appearing as expert witnesses amid reports of bias, witness coaching and withholding evidence. Magistrates, Solicitors and leading veterinarains have also encouraged vets to seek advice and training before standing as witness, following accusations against RSPCA legal department.
Clive Rees who has acted as defence barrister in cases brought be the RSPCA, believes vets can become partisan if they have not received adequate training. He explained: Although [veterinary surgeons] are accurate with factual evidence, the interpretation put on it, or the opinion given, can be baised eaither way, usually towards the RSPCA.
Mr Rees accused the RSPCA of attempts to "make sure it's vets are pretty baised" He continued: Some Birds cases have seen some of the prosecution vets becoming quiet partisan, and they were quiet eminent vets who should have known better. I have heard of other cases where the RSPCA have told vets what to say, and they have gone along with it. The Self Help Group for Farmers, Pet Owners and Others experiencing difficulties with the RSPCA, (SHG) - which provides advice for people facing RSPCA led prosecution - also claims the society influenced witnesses and withheld evidence. The SHG has highlighted two cases - in which Annette Nally, and Martin and Gina Griffin were accused of failing to provide treatment for their dog and horse respectively - where the judge criticised the animals welfare charity for "the non-disclosure of documents" and failing to accept prior veterinary opinion. SHG member Ernest Vine said: "It seems that the RSPCA's team may have regrettably, again lost sight of the duty to be fair to the defendant, against who it makes grotesque allegations of cruelty." However, an RSPCA spokesman has denied it has purposefully infuenced witnesses of with held evidence. "The RSPCA takes it's roll of prosecutor extremely seriously and follows a set of principles based on those of the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service)" The society instructs independent solicitors and barristers to act on it's behalf, and around 95 per cent of cases brought be the society results in conviction. This is, infact, considerably higher than the CPS conviction rate" "However, the society resorts to prosecution only as a last resort. After all, the 'P' in RSPCA stands for prevention - We much prefer to improve animal welfare through education and advice." The allegations have promped veterinary surgeon and barrister, Madeleine Forsyth to call on any vet who is called as an expert witness to ensure he or she understands the roll. She explained that any vet could be called as an expert witness, and added: Recent cases make it clear that many veterinary surgeons dont understand their duty to the court, their status as a witness and the effect of their opinion: it is just as clear that the moral and professional dilemmas that often arise haven't been considered before the expert exposes himself or herself enivitable criticism." Ms Forsyth explained that due to the weight a vets opinion holds in court, it is vital it is correct. She also criticised the RSPCA for influencing vets who were called upon to give evidence. She said: Giving an opinion that may result in someone receiving a criminal record carries with it a very heavy burden of responsibility to ensure that the opinion is objective, educated, considered and truthful, and these duties are laied down by law. The RSPCA has a coaching document which has been instrumental in two cases recently being thrown out of court completely. The judge believed the document was not just a helpful paper to assist them to offer their opinion, but was directing them using pejorative phraseology. Due to the important roll of the expert witness in court proceeding, Peter Jinman, who sits on the committee of the Veterinary Association of Arbitration and Jurisprudence (VAAJ), believes that vets must look for advice before giving evidence. He said: I do not think vets understand the process of what is expected of them.Although some legal training is given at veterinary school, it is only a glimps. Before getting involved in any legal process, understand what is expected of you, as well as the difference between being a witness of fact and an expert witness. All to often particularly in the magistrates court, it is likely that the vet appearing as a witness of fact may well be asked for opinion, and the key is never to give opinion outside of true knowledge. The moment you start to wonder outside of areas of your competence, their is a risk of misleading the court." Mr Jinman advised veterinary practitioners to talk to anybody who has appeared as an expert witness in the past. While pointing them in the direction of the Council for Registration of forensic practitioners, VAAJ courses and the RCVS code of practice for further information.The code stated: "Care should be taken not to show bias in the report. Matters which do not assist your argument, should be disclosed since failure to do so could damage your credibility. Extreme language should be avoided and personal opinions should be muted "