Consultant of the year says expert witnesses must work to stay sharp

Expert witness work is becoming an option for freelance IT specialists, but they need to keep up traditional IT work to stay...

Expert witness work is becoming an option for freelance IT specialists, but they need to keep up traditional IT work to stay up-to-date. This is the experience of Gill Hunt, whose work on the dispute between Co-operative Group and ICL (now Fujitsu) won her the Consultant of the Year Award in the 2003 BCS IT Professional Awards.

Hunt started acting as an expert witness while working as a consultant in 1998. After going independent she took a course run by the Academy of Experts.

"It can be fascinating to read through project documentation from start to finish and almost feel relations deteriorating," she said. "You see the mistakes and what could have been done to put things right.

"Usually contracts go wrong right at the beginning. When you read the documentation you can see they were set up wrong, were underpriced or deadlines were not set properly and so on.

"Sometimes there is a personality clash, someone who will just not make it work. All projects are a partnership, but that means both sides have to give and take. Sometimes people do not see it that way. Customers might say they are paying and will get what they want, but suppliers can behave badly too, saying they are going to provide exactly what is being paid for and will not budge."

Expert witnesses are commissioned by one party in a case, but they must stay independent: their duty is to the court."The expert sits on a barbed-wire fence," Hunt said. "You might get hit by the client if you have to say things they do n0t like. But your overriding duty is to be objective."

Expert witnesses prepare a report that goes to court as their evidence. They can get called and questioned in detail by barristers. They also sit with a barrister to advise during proceedings.

Hunt enjoys the work but believes it is important to do other things too. "I feel very strongly that experts should practise in the field, otherwise there is a danger that you might lose touch with IT generally, which could put you in a weaker position," she said.

"You need classic consultancy skills: good communication, the ability to write. Some people decide against it because it is such a personal responsibility - the outcome of a case can seriously affect a company.

"You have to be able to look objectively from the outside. You have to remind yourself to stay a bit outside the client's team: that can be an uncomfortable position."

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