Role of expert witnesses
Typically, experts are relied on for opinions on severity of injury, degree of sanity, cause of failure in a machine or other device, loss of earnings and associated benefits, care costs, and the like. In an intellectual property case an expert may be shown two music scores, book texts, or circuit boards and asked to ascertain their degree of similarity. In the majority of cases, the expert’s personal relation to the defendant is considered and irrelevant.
The tribunal itself, or the judge, can in some systems call upon experts to technically evaluate a certain fact or action, in order to provide the court with a complete knowledge on the fact/action it is judging. The expertise has the legal value of an acquisition of data. The results of these experts are then compared to those by the experts of the parties.
The expert has a great responsibility, and especially in penal trials, and perjury by an expert is a severely punished crime in most countries. The use of expert witnesses is sometimes criticized in the United States because in civil trials, they are often used by both sides to advocate differing positions, and it is left up to a jury to decide which expert witness to believe. Although experts are legally prohibited from expressing their opinion of submitted evidence until after they are hired, sometimes a party can surmise beforehand, because of reputation or prior cases, that the testimony will be favorable regardless of any basis in the submitted data; such experts are commonly disparaged as “hired guns.”
Duties of experts
In England and Wales, under the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (CPR), an expert witness is required to be independent and address his or her expert report to the court. A witness may be jointly instructed by both sides if the parties agree to this, especially in cases where the liability is relatively small.
Under the CPR, expert witnesses may be instructed to produce a joint statement detailing points of agreement and disagreement to assist the court or tribunal. The meeting is held quite independently of instructing lawyers, and often assists in resolution of a case, especially if the experts review and modify their opinions. When this happens, substantial trial costs can be saved when the parties to a dispute agree to a settlement. In most systems, the trial (or the procedure) can be suspended in order to allow the experts to study the case and produce their results. More frequently, meetings of experts occur before trial. Experts charge a professional fee which is paid by the party commissioning the report (both parties for joint instructions) although the report is addressed to the court. The fee must not be contingent on the outcome of the case. Expert witnesses may be subpoenaed (issued with a witness summons), although this is normally a formality to avoid court date clashes.
In the United States, under the Federal Rule of Evidence 702 (FRE), an expert witness must be qualified on the topic of testimony. In determining the qualifications of the expert, the FRE requires the expert have had specialized education, training, or practical experience in the subject matter relating to the case. The expert’s testimony must be based on facts in evidence, and should offer opinion about the causation or correlation to the evidence in drawing a conclusion.
Experts in the U.S. typically are paid on an hourly basis for their services in investigating the facts, preparing a report, and if necessary, testifying during pre-trial discovery, or at trial. Hourly fees range from approximately $200 to $750 or more per hour, varying primarily by the expert’s field of expertise, and the individual expert’s qualifications and reputation. In several fields, such as handwriting analysis, where the expert compares signatures to determine the likelihood of a forgery, and medical case reviews by a physician or nurse, in which the expert goes over hospital and medical records to assess the possibility of malpractice, experts often initially charge a flat fixed fee for their initial report. As with the hourly fees discussed previously, the amount of that flat fee varies considerably based on the reviewing expert’s field, experience and reputation. The expert’s professional fee, plus his or her related expenses, is generally paid by the party retaining the expert. In some circumstance the party who prevails in the litigation may be entitled to recover the amounts paid to its expert from the losing party. In high stakes cases multiple experts, in multiple topics, are often retained by each party. Although it is still relatively rare, the court itself may also retain its own independent expert. In all cases, fees paid to an expert may not be contingent on the outcome of the case.