If you read Part I of how and when to use expert witnesses in your court case, you may now be wondering where to find such a person. It's important to know that, unless you’re representing yourself, it’s up to a survivor’s lawyer whether to engage an expert witness in a court case. Unfortunately, some attorneys are not aware of how much their client’s case can be strengthened by testimony about coercive control and domestic abuse. Sometimes lawyers resist raising the issue of domestic abuse in cases related to divorce, custody or other matters for good reasons; sometimes they are simply not familiar with the issues. Fortunately, several websites offer extensive materials related to legal issues in domestic violence, including most notably the Battered Women’s Justice Project. You and your attorneys may want to review these resources, to get an idea of ways to frame your case.
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Finding the Right Expert
Expert witnesses in domestic abuse typically have extensive experience in their field as well as professional training in social work, psychology, research, advocacy or criminal justice. It’s possible that you will want an expert with a very narrow area of expertise, such as strangulation. Most of the time, however, someone who understands domestic violence and/or coercive control more broadly will be able to educate the courts on your case as comprehensively as necessary. The expert you engage should be familiar with the relevant research literature and will cite such literature in his or her report or testimony.
Some people are essentially full-time expert witnesses, while others work occasionally in this area in addition to working as professors or clinicians or in other positions. Someone who has done three hundred cases may not be a better witness than someone who has done a dozen—the other side may be more easily able to dismiss the expert as a “fulltime hired gun.”
How Do You Go About Finding the Right Expert Witness?
Attorneys with experience in domestic abuse cases may be able to suggest experts with whom they have worked in the past. Your local domestic violence agency may also have recommendations. Or you might perform an Internet search looking for terms such as “domestic violence expert witness” or “expert in coercive control.” If you have found popular or professional articles written by experts or mentioning experts, you might be able to contact these people and ask them if they testify in court.
Ultimately, you and your attorney will need to agree to use the services of a particular expert. The expert’s approach needs to fit in with your attorney’s strategy. For instance, some domestic violence experts rely on ideas of Battered Women’s Syndrome, while others have abandoned such ideas and embrace a framework of Coercive Control as being more favorable to victim/survivors.
You may not need to limit yourself to your geographic area in your search for an expert—many courts now allow experts to testify remotely.
How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Witness?
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Expert witnesses often charge as much per hour as lawyers. Some do occasional pro bono (for free) work. Some experts are willing to accept a “per case” fee rather than an hourly rate, so you know what you will be facing. Some require a retainer—essentially a deposit on their services before they will even begin to work on your case. If your lawyer is working pro bono, your lawyer’s firm may pay the expert out of their funds, so there will still be no cost to you. Law firms that are experienced in using expert witnesses will have a standard expert witness agreement that they sign. This may involve putting some money into an escrow account to be paid to the expert at specific moments in their work (for instance, upon completing ten hours of work or turning in their report). If the expert is called to testify, you may incur additional expenses related to waiting time, lodging or meals. It is best to have this all spelled out in advance. When experts become involved in cases, the opposing side may become more willing to cooperate and reach an agreement, meaning you can avoid a trial.
If you (and your lawyer) are considering engaging an expert, you will want to speak with the person to see if they feel like a fit. You can also:
- Do an Internet search on the person and review their website, if they have one
- Ask the expert to describe their qualifications and/or send you their resume
- Ask them if they have worked on similar cases
- Ask about their approach
An expert witness can be especially important in domestic abuse cases where there has been coercive control but no physical violence, or there is no public record of physical violence. The expert explains to the courts how coercive control is a systematic multifaceted abuse that limits the victim’s options, is enacted over time, and can exert tremendous harm.
Not all domestic abuse legal cases require the services of an expert witness. But if your case does fit the need, engaging the right person may mean the difference between winning and losing.
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