Related Sector: Expert Witness
Maria Morris is an occupational therapist (OT) and vocational rehabilitation therapist (VT), with extensive clinical experience working with clients who have suffered life-changing injuries and illnesses impacting their physical or mental health. She began her career in 1989 and has worked with thousands of clients since in various organisations, including Government, injured military personnel and employees of the royal household.
1. How did you get into this field of work?
I started my expert work assisting other OT experts around twenty years ago. After suffering my own personal injury in the NHS from a faulty piece of equipment, I changed careers and used the funds I received from my personal injury claim to set up in private practice helping others overcome disability and injury. My experience has enabled me to understand what people go through with pain or ongoing health symptoms, and the frustrations that come with lodging a personal injury claim.
After completing Bond Solon’s excellence in report writing course in June 2021, I joined the Expert Witness Panel at Circle Case Management as a VT expert witness.
2. What does your typical day/week look like?
My roles at Circle Case Management are very varied. I am a Vocational Case Manager (recently winning an award), a VT expert witness and I also help Circle with their Learning & Development and Sustainability offerings.
I balance my roles with Circle over 3-4 days a week and ensure I dedicate sufficient time to each one. I have lots of time management and productivity tips that I teach clients and use myself. For example, I tend to book high cognitive demanding tasks like report writing or meetings in the mornings when I work best then leave the less demanding calls and tasks for the afternoon.
I practice what I preach. I have always worked holistically. This career can be emotionally and physically draining at times. Therefore, I always ensure that I take time out in nature at least once a day as only six minutes a day has been proven to provide a weeks’ worth of health benefits.
I balance my expert and case work with my own wellness needs. So, when not working with Circle I am an artist and enjoy imparting my nature or ecotherapy skills to others.
I believe if we do that, we are able to provide a higher quality service to clients as we feel refreshed and alert.
3. What is the most interesting matter that you have worked on?
I have enjoyed all the expert client cases I have worked on. Every case is different, every person is different.
Recent matters include providing an opinion of how best to manage visual impairment, brain injury, complex orthopaedic injury, and complex regional pain syndrome. This was for a variety of different people from a young adult at college, to adults who are working or looking to return to work, as well as those over retirement age still wanting to be active and live a purposeful life. My expert OT reports focus on care costs, following injury or incident, current needs and helping predict future needs. OT expert reports involve recommendations for equipment or support with things like reading or writing, gardening, general personal hygiene and care, meals, mobility at home or out in the community, socialising, maintaining a hobby, gardening, DIY and where they live. The aim is for people to regain more functional independence for daily tasks, add more structure to their week, have an increased sense of purpose and live a more meaningful enjoyable life after their injury or incident.
Whereas my VT expert reports include how best to return to studies, whether adjustments are needed to a computer, office or work environment, identifying what type of work a person can do after their injury or incident, or even identifying voluntary work prior to paid work as a stepping stone to paid work. It can also include how their injuries has impacted their finances or work potential or identifying what hours of work they may be able to manage given their symptoms.
As I am trained and experienced as an OT and VT, I am often instructed to prepare a combination of the two expert reports. Some of my recent cases include:
- A new father with a brain and neck injury who was struggling with how best to juggle his symptoms of pain, fatigue and memory, with the multi-tasking needed at home and in his job. He was finding it challenging to stay in work and reduce arguments at home with his partner. His case was settled and I understand most of the following recommendations have been implemented: working more from home, adjustments to his workstation, work deadlines, regular contact with his manager, help with childcare, help with getting back to hobbies and learning how to better manage fatigue.
- A young man with a visual impairment and dyslexia who needed emotional support to cope with his disability adjustment and some assistive technology to help him when applying for apprenticeships.
- A previously very active retired woman who was not only suffering with chronic pain from an arm injury but had several bereavements to cope with. She needed help with added transport as she could not drive and lived in a rural area. The woman now has case management to help her coordinate appointments for rehabilitation, complete administrative tasks and manage an extensive wild meadow and garden which is her legacy to the local community.
4. What are the highs and lows of the job?
Everyone is different so my role involves pulling together all the threads of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to create a life or work picture: pieces from a person’s past, their current situation and what they may need in the future, identifying their problems, their challenges, what’s working for them, what isn’t and what could or would work better. Then I write a report to present that picture, findings, and recommendations with a researched and experienced impartial opinion to the court and legal teams to help them make the best and most appropriate ruling for that person. I carry out this process regardless of whether I work for the defence or the claimant. A spinal cord injured client once told me how my work often turns someone’s tragedy into a victory. Whilst it cannot take the injury or incident away, it can improve a person’s quality of life. Knowing that my opinions are deemed worthwhile, that they matter, and that my recommendations make a positive difference to the quality and standard of people’s lives and work is highly rewarding.
Litigation work often involves tight deadlines and pressures. The reports can be lengthy, although I do have administrative help (thankfully). Assessing a person’s needs, pre-meeting reading, research, detailing costs and writing reports takes time. It is important to fit all this work into my schedule so that I can continue to deliver quality services that my clients deserve.
5. What advice would you give to someone wanting to start out?
Litigation can be a stressful process. Therefore, my advice is to always think outside the box and to get creative in developing an instant rapport with people, so they relax and feel at ease. This will allow you to obtain more useful information for your expert report.
For example, I was recently instructed in my capacity as an OT expert to assess a young man with visual impairment who despised “traditional talking therapy and boring or stressful legal appointments’’. So, to help him relax and open up, as well as to assess his mobility we conducted half our session walking or sitting outside in the local park.
It is important to get specific expert training – I’d recommend Bond Solon’s expert witness courses. In fact, I’m due to be attending a new course tailored to vocational rehabilitation therapist experts. If you are interested, please get in touch with Bond Solon or Circle.
Ensure that you read and the understand the rules required to be an expert. Each profession usually has advice or guidance as to how to be an expert or requirements.
Talk to any peers who are already practising as experts. Work alongside another expert to get an idea of what is involved. You can assist them researching or preparing costings, without preparing the final report.
It would be sensible to ask a peer or colleague to proofread or sense check your expert report, for example, by checking any costs or complex materials or acting as a sounding board for your opinions.
If your opinion is questioned, stand in your expert power. Do not let anyone brow beat you. Back up your opinion with research and experience. Be willing to compromise if needed.
Use a good ergonomic workstation for your comfort. Use voice dictation to save extensive typing or get administrative help to type reports in the correct format.
Keep reports as short and succinct as possible. If a solicitor, barrister, or judge were to pick up the report with only 15-20 minutes to spare would they know where to find the information they need in each section easily? Or within a relevant appendix? Break up the reports into text, tables, and bullet points to ease reading. Ensure you have a clear and concise summary of your findings and opinions.
Be aware of the limits of your expertise and skillset. Only take a case if you feel competent to handle it.
If you do not enjoy writing reports or doing the detailed work, then avoid doing expert work. Expert work is not just about a perceived “easier way” to make money. It’s a highly skilled, responsible role and requires dedicated work. You need patience, perseverance, and accuracy.
Finally, remember the quote by Helen Hayes “The Expert at Anything was once a beginner” so don’t be afraid of trying it out to see if it works for you. And avoid the quote by Colin Powell who says, “Experts often have more data than judgement”.
This article was first published on 10 March 2023
Edited by Meera Shah