In England and Wales, a Single Joint Expert (SJE) is an expert witness hired to create a report for the Court on behalf of two or more parties involved in a legal case, including the person making the claim.
The rules of Civil Procedure stress the importance of parties agreeing to appoint a single expert rather than each party hiring their own, especially in smaller cases. This is done to lower costs and make expert testimony more efficient.
An SJE’s main duty is to assist the court on matters within their area of expertise.
What do single Joint Experts do?
Single Joint Experts can:
Provide accurate valuations of businesses or assets during divorce proceedings;
Offer impartial valuations for business acquisitions or mergers;
Conduct independent valuations of shareholdings in businesses during shareholder disputes or partner exits.
Importantly, the role of an SJE is to provide a fair, realistic, and impartial assessment or valuation, and present a clear report to the Court.
What are the responsibilities of a Single Joint Expert?
Single joint experts must keep all parties informed throughout the process. They shouldn’t attend meetings unless all parties agree or the court directs. If they do attend meetings, the parties should agree on who pays for them.
SJEs can ask the court for directions if needed and their reports should be served to all parties simultaneously. Even if they receive conflicting instructions, they provide a single report, and, if there are different opinions due to conflicting instructions, reports may include multiple opinions, but it is the court that decides the facts.
How are Single Joint Experts appointed?
The SJE is selected by the parties together, not by the Court, although the Court can decide to use an SJE for certain issues.
Before opting for an SJE, the Court considers factors like the amount of money involved, the importance of the expert issues, and the complexity of the case.
Typically, it's the parties' job to agree on the SJE. If they can't agree, the Court may choose the expert from a list provided by the parties or dictate the selection process.
Regardless, all parties instructing the SJE share responsibility for paying their fees, and invoices are sent to everyone simultaneously. The Court might set a limit on how much can be paid to the expert and order some or all of the parties to pay that amount to the court.
The court can also give instructions about how a Single Joint Expert’s fees and expenses will be paid and any inspections, examinations, or experiments the expert wants to do.
How are Single Joint Experts instructed?
If the court decides to use an SJE, any party involved can give instructions to the expert.
When a party gives instructions to the expert, they must also send a copy to the other parties involved.
Usually, parties should agree on instructions for the SJE together. If they can't, they can give separate instructions, but they should try to agree on areas of disagreement.
When preparing the report, the SJE, like a party-appointed expert, doesn't determine the facts – that's the Court's job. The SJE might have to work with different assumptions, so their report might include multiple opinions on an issue. The report must be shared with all instructing parties at the same time.
When experts are hired by multiple parties, if all instructions aren’t received, the expert sets a deadline. If instructions aren’t received by then, the expert can start work. If instructions come in later, the expert considers if it’s feasible to include them without delaying the report or significantly increasing costs. If not, the expert must inform the parties, who can seek court directions. If instructions were received late, or not at all, the report must clearly say this.
Even if an SJE is appointed, parties can still hire their own advisors. However, they might not be able to recover the advisor's costs later in the case.
What happens if one party disagrees with the Single Joint Expert?
If one party disagrees with the Single Joint Expert, they need to ask the court for permission to hire another expert. The new expert must then discuss differences with the joint expert to narrow any dispute.
In Court, the judge may need to hear evidence from both the jointly instructed expert and the second expert to decide whose opinion to rely on. As you may imagine, this process can be costly.
In tricky cases, emotions can run high and the opinion of the SJE can heavily influence the outcome. If the expert’s opinion is unfavourable, one party may want to salvage the situation. However, given the busy schedules of SJEs, there’s limited time before a trial to take action, like asking questions or getting new expert evidence.
Further, it’s not easy to convince a trial judge to go against the SJE’s opinion. Getting permission to rely on new evidence requires swift action and showing that it’s proportionate to the case’s value and complexity.
Ultimately, courts weigh various factors in deciding whether to allow new evidence, and trial judges have broad discretion in managing cases.
In what kind of cases are Single Joint Experts commonly used?
Single Joint Experts are often appointed in family law proceedings where outside expertise is needed to assess various aspects like property values, businesses, or pension funds.
In these cases, using one expert is preferred to save time and money. Using a joint expert is becoming common practice.
In a recent case heard in family court, a couple, referred to as BR and BR, were going through a divorce. During their marriage, the husband (H), built several successful businesses supported by his wife (W). Both parties agreed that they made equal contributions to the marriage and family, and it’s generally accepted that their assets should be divided equally.
In this case, the court thought that expert evidence from an SJE was necessary to determine the value of assets, taxation, and liquidity in divorce proceedings. The court stressed the use of an SJE instead of each party having their own experts because:
It’s usually cheaper to use one expert;
The SJE is truly independent unlike experts instructed by one party;
Both parties can raise questions and concerns with the SJE.
The court stressed that departing from the default use of an SJE required strong justification, although both parties were encouraged to continue working with their own accountants for guidance.
Are Single Joint Experts ever used outside of court?
A Single Joint Expert can be used before court proceedings during negotiations, or even in mediation, collaborative law, and arbitration. They can help parties reach agreements, through valuing properties or advising on fair pension sharing during divorce proceedings.
If parties do seek advice from an expert before legal proceedings start, and they don’t plan to use it in court, that advice is usually considered confidential. However, if experts are hired after proceedings start, their role is to provide advice only and they’re acting as advisors, not preparing evidence for the court.
Do Single Joint Experts testify in court?
SJEs typically don’t testify in court, but if they do, all parties can ask them questions. Usually, written questions are sent to them before asking them to attend court for cross-examination.
Single Joint Expert vs Separate Instruction
Parties can choose to use either separate experts or a Single Joint Expert.
One of the main benefits of using a Single Joint Expert is there are no conflicting views between expert witnesses and communication is transparent, as all communication must be shared with both parties simultaneously.
Alternatively, if both parties have separate experts, their solicitors can have private talks with the experts and there’s no obligation to share communication with the expert with the other party.
If parties have their own experts in addition to the SJE, discussions can happen between the two with court permission, either by court order or mutual agreement of involved parties. These discussions should focus on matters within the expertise of the additional experts or as directed by the court.
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Single Joint Experts help resolve many disputes fairly and efficiently, providing unbiased expert opinions to assist the court in making well-informed decisions.
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