2008 January - Note 1

Suggested precautions for doctors giving evidence in witness box

In the case of C. V. S. R. Prasad v/s Vasudha Nursing Home & Anr. (reported on page no. a1 [Abstract and Advice]; page no. j1 [Judgment]), the doctor who had stepped in the witness box to give evidence made a serious mistake. He gave answers to the questions put to him without bothering to see hospital records. Obviously, when the records were shown to him at a later stage and that too by the opposite side, he was bound to change his earlier statements. The result was that the patient made allegations against him that ”he was bought over” by the other side.

Doctors are required to step into the witness box for three distinct purposes:

  • Firstly, doctors are usually required to give evidence in medicolegal cases (which includes cases of medical negligence) as “experts,” and their opinion is termed as “expert opinion.” In such cases they are expected to give neutral, unbiased scientific and technical opinion.
  • Secondly, doctors are required to give evidence on documents which they have authored in their professional capacity. In such cases they have to give both “expert opinion” as well as defend his or her opinion.
  • Thirdly, in cases of medical negligence, doctors accused of medical negligence are required to give evidence in their defense like any other delinquent.

For doctors, giving evidence in a court of law is an “unavoidable professional burden.” Hence some general but important precautions are suggested here.

General Precautions

  • Preparation in advance is necessary.
  • Appear well dressed.
  • Wear apron before entering the court (not compulsory). The exception is cases where doctors appear to defend themselves on accusations of medical negligence.
  • Address High Court judges as “My Lord” and subordinate judges as “Your Honor.” Now, even “Sir” is permissible.
  • Statements given in court must be relevant, reliable, clear, honest and impartial.
  • Language must be plain and simple.
  • Answers must be to the point and brief.
  • Be frank.
  • State clearly whenever:
    • You are “not aware” OR
    • You cannot “recollect”
  • Insist that statements are properly recorded, especially clarifications.
  • Don’t lose temper, though repeated attempts will be made by advocates to make you do so.
  • Don’t use technical terms or language. Remember, everyone in court, except the doctor, is a nonmedical person.

Leading evidence on you own documents
In case a doctor is called by a court of law to lead evidence on his or her own documents, i.e., documents which the doctor has authored (e.g., Fitness Certificates, Postmortem Reports, etc.); or documents which have been authored under the doctor’s directions (e.g., Medical Records of Hospital),

  • Ask for the ‘document in question’.
  • Insist on original copies.
  • Check the ‘document in question’ thoroughly.
  • Check whether you have authored the ‘document in question’ or whether it has been authored under your directions.
  • Check your signature on the ‘document in question’.
  • If the ‘document in question’ is not authored by you or under your directions or does not bear your signature, say so at the outset and refuse to answer questions on the said document.
  • Refresh your memory with the ‘document in question’.
  • Take time to read and understand the ‘document in question’ properly.
  • Thereafter, proceed to answer questions.
  • At every question, you are at liberty to read and peruse the ‘document in question’.

Questions on legal proceedings or textbooks
If textbook or any part of legal proceedings is referred to,

  • Ask for the original copy of the same to read.
  • On being shown, read the entire page or even chapter and not only the portion on which your comments are sought.
  • Thereafter, give your answers.

After giving answer
Generally a witness’s statement is directly recorded on a typewriter.
After giving answer,

  • Listen attentively to what is being been recorded, especially your clarifications.
  • Insist on your statement being read over.
  • Point out to mistakes, if any, and insist that the same must be rectified.

Supreme Court’s Directions: Pandit Parmananda Katara’s Case

  • Courts should not summon a doctor to give evidence unless his/ her evidence is absolutely necessary.
  • Doctors must be given preference in court.
  • Doctors must not be asked to wait.
  • Unnecessary harassment of doctors by way of requests for adjournments or by cross-examination should be avoided.

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