- A professional witness testifies to the facts of a case.
- The role is different from the expert witness.
- Evidence is given under oath in court.
- A standard fee is payable.
The professional witness
Doctors can expect to be called to give evidence as a professional witness several times in their career, by many different types of court, including:
- coroner's court (inquest), or fatal accident inquiry (in Scotland)
- criminal court
- civil court
- employment tribunals.
If you're asked to give evidence, you must understand your role and follow the GMC guidance setting out the duties of a doctor when acting as a witness.
A professional witness helps the court establish the facts. They may be called to give first-hand oral evidence of a patient consultation or contact in which they were acting in their normal professional capacity.
They may also be asked by the court to give their professional interpretation of the facts, but should make clear what is factual evidence and what is opinion based on judgement and experience.
Voluntary attendance or summons
A professional witness may give evidence voluntarily or be compelled to give evidence (summoned).
A doctor may prefer to be summoned when there are issues of confidentiality and consent to disclosure, such as:
- you are asked to appear by a third party
- evidence is being sought against the patient's wishes
- your evidence may be against the patient's best interests.
Normally, a non-negotiable fee is payable. If summoned, 'conduct money' (in effect, travel costs) will also be paid.
The summons must be properly issued and accompanied by conduct money. If you're in any doubt whether the summons has been properly issued, please contact us for advice.
Giving evidence and answering questions
- When giving evidence, you should focus on your observations and understanding of the case, and any relevant clinical history the patient gave you.
- You will probably be allowed to refer to the original patient records while you are on the witness stand. You will probably not be allowed to look at any non-contemporaneous records or reports. We therefore advise you to read your written report again carefully before the hearing.
- You will be questioned by barristers. You should look at them when they are asking a question then address your answer to the judge or tribunal and the jury if there is one.
- Answer only the questions as they are put to you. Often, a simple yes or no answer is sufficient.
- The questioning may be repetitive. Maintain your professional composure and answer each question.
- The court may challenge your evidence on cross-examination. You must be prepared to explain what you found, and also what you asked and looked for but failed to find. It's acceptable to do this from memory, or to describe your usual or normal practice.
- You should not be afraid to say that you don't know the answer to a question or admit that something is outside your level of experience or expertise.
Maintaining patient confidentiality
Even when under oath, a doctor has a duty to protect patient confidentiality. You may not breach confidentiality unless the presiding officer of the court directs you to do so. A barrister or solicitor cannot compel you to breach confidentiality, either before or during the hearing.
How can we help?
The duties of both professional and expert witnesses is to the court - although the duties may differ. For more on this, watch our video.
If you're a member, you can contact us at any time for specific advice on being a witness.
This page was correct at publication on 08/04/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.