The recent decision of Mr Justice Barr in the High Court in Havbell DAC v Harry Hilliard and Ursula Hilliard reminds us of the importance of expert witnesses setting out their credentials and qualifications in their areas of practice when giving expert evidence, and the consequences should they fail to do so.
What is required of expert witnesses?
An expert’s role is to assist the court in cases involving technical issues of which the court does not have the necessary technical or specialist knowledge. While the general position is that witnesses may only give evidence as to their knowledge, expert witnesses are permitted to provide an opinion on matters in line with their specialism.
However, when furnishing written reports or providing oral evidence, expert witnesses must first set out what qualifies them to provide such evidence.
An expert can establish their expertise in three ways:
Academic or professional qualifications,
Professional experience, or
Publications and personal research
In written reports exchanged before a hearing, it is not uncommon for extensive CVs or publication lists to be appended to such reports.
In the Havbell decision, the Plaintiff brought an application seeking summary judgment in the sum of €1,869,031.90. This sum arose out of defaults in respect of six loans furnished by Permanent TSB to the defendants between 2003 and 2007. These loans were transferred to the plaintiff company in 2015. Letters of demand were subsequently issued but the defendants were unable to repay the plaintiff company.
One of the grounds on which the defendants contested the application was that the plaintiff acted unlawfully in applying repayments to the incorrect account and that the applicable interest rates stated in the statement of accounts used to ground the plaintiff’s application were incorrect.
In support of their defence the defendants sought to rely on a report from an individual who purported to be an expert in banking.
The plaintiff contended that this report was inadmissible on the basis that there was no evidence before the Court that this person was an expert, as alleged. The report was silent as to the person's qualifications and experience which brought into doubt the validity of the report’s contents.
The Court noted that while there was no specific threshold which must be met for an individual to be regarded an expert, nevertheless some evidence of qualification and professional experience in the area in which the expert proposes to give evidence was necessary.
The fact that the report sought to be relied upon by the defendants was silent as to the person's professional and academic background rendered it inadmissible.
In the circumstances, Mr Justice Barr granted summary judgment in favour of the plaintiff.
The case demonstrates that although there is no set threshold for an expert witness to meet in respect of his or her expertise before they will be permitted to give expert evidence, they must at the very least provide sufficient details of their qualifications and academic backgrounds. The proposed expert must at least clear this hurdle before their report is admitted as evidence and they face the challenge of cross-examination.
This case illustrates that a failure to do so will most likely render their evidence inadmissible.