The Tribunal recently commented upon the role that expert witnesses play in proceedings before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
In Ridgeway v Melbourne CC  VCAT 525 (23 April 2015) the Tribunal considered a proposal by a university residential college to undertake works on land in Carlton. The College called a very experienced expert witness who had been a resident of the College many years earlier. The objector argued that:
- The witness be excluded from the hearing room prior to him giving evidence; and
- The weight to be afforded to the evidence be reduced given the association with the college.
The Tribunal refused to exclude the witness from the hearing room prior to giving evidence. This is an important distinction between the Tribunal and other jurisdictions (such as in criminal law cases). The Tribunal concluded the role of an expert is to the assist the Tribunal and that the witness gains an advantage in performing that role if they hear the proceedings leading up to the time that they give evidence. This allows the witness to tailor their evidence to address the issues more directly, thereby facilitating an efficient hearing and better assisting the Tribunal to reach its decision.
On the second issue the Tribunal determined that the prior association went to the weight to be given to the witness’ evidence. In light of the witnesses’ level of experience and the passage of time since the witness attended the College the evidence was not to be discounted ‘to a great extent’.
This decision highlights the important role of expert witnesses in this jurisdiction and draws a distinction between conduct of matters in the Tribunal and other Courts.
The Tribunal is often presented with conflicting evidence which it must weigh to arrive at a decision. It is important that parties understand that any association with a party, be it historic or project specific, goes to the weight that the Tribunal will afford to the evidence of that witness.
In a case such as Ridgeway it may be that the appropriate witness to assist the Tribunal is one with an albeit historic link to the applicant. However for the reasons expressed in Ridgeway it is usually advantageous to brief an expert witness who has no association with the project to evaluate the proposal.
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