Rarely I write two articles on a single subject in one day (and certainly not this late at night). However, I’m genuinely enthused about this latest initiative by the Family Justice Council and British Psychological Society. It’s a matter I’ve been talking and writing about for the past two years.
Last year, I worked with Families Need Fathers making proposals for improvements in family law related to contact disputes and cases involving child alienation. These were presented to the President of the Family Court at a meeting last September. My belief (then and now) was that there should be greater collaboration between the courts and organisations such as the British Psychological Society to develop and share best practice to improve outcomes. It’s a belief which is clearly shared and worked upon by others and I thank them.
In 2014, Practice Direction 25B, ‘The Duties of an Expert’ was a welcome step forward, but there needed to be more done to ensure practice directions are followed and due diligence done when practice directions are at times ignored in court proceedings. That, I believe, is a matter for Family Justice Councils to pursue.
Best practice sharing, feedback mechanisms and agreed standards are essential tools in improving outcomes and introducing consistency into court proceedings. This becomes even more important amongst the chaos caused by court closures, cutbacks and fewer parties having representation.
Expert reports are variable in quality and the joy of this new initiative and the intentions behind it are to not only set appropriate standards for psychological assessments, but to introduce feedback mechanisms to improve standards in expert reporting. The guidance goes further in giving examples of what psychological assessments should include (see the image below… the example being for contact/residence disputes). Make sure you read it!
Poor quality assessments, and the appointment of practitioners lacking the requisite skills and/or experience causes delay (often months), the need for additional assessments (costing the parties thousands), and risks poor outcomes for families. Delay in itself makes it more difficult to resolve cases. Past research showed 20% of those involved in court work as experts lacked the necessary qualifications, and a further 20% lacked the necessary experience. I doubt enough people carry out due diligence when proposing or considering an expert.
To assist with due diligence, we have updated our own guide on Psychological Assessments which can be found in the Crisis Menu of our online guides. We have included:
- A download version of the new Psychologists as Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts Guidance
- Links to registers for psychologist practitioners.
- Links to relevant registering bodies for child psychotherapy, systemic family therapy, and other therapist counsellors who may be considered for appropriate family court work as experts. Bear in mind Practice Direction 25B sets out that the term expert includes a reference to an expert team which can include ancillary workers (in addition to experts) who may be considered experts in their own field.
- Links to professional conduct hearings and findings for each of these organisations.
- A download version of Practice Direction 25B, which includes the standards to which all experts in family proceedings should adhere and all those involved with cases involving experts should be aware.
A guide has been announced today by Courts and Tribunal Judiciary for all stakeholders specific to the use of psychologists as expert witnesses. The guide provides discipline specific information in relation to regulation, codes of conduct, competencies, supervision/peer review and quality of service.
The guide will be added to our Psychological Assessments page and can be downloaded via the following link:
Psychologists as Expert Witnesses in the Family Courts
Standards, in respect of all expert witnesses were updated in 2014 via Practice Direction 25B and consideration of these should form part of due diligence for the appointment of experts in proceedings, not least to avoid proceedings being delayed and unnecessary costs to litigants.
Practice Direction 25B includes “Subject to any order made by the court, expert witnesses involved in family proceedings (involving children) in England and Wales, whatever their field of practice or country of origin, must comply with the standards.”
- The expert’s area of competence is appropriate to the issue(s) upon which the court has identified that an opinion is required, and relevant experience is evidenced in their CV.
- The expert has been active in the area of work or practice, (as a practitioner or an academic who is subject to peer appraisal), has sufficient experience of the issues relevant to the instant case, and is familiar with the breadth of current practice or opinion.
- The expert has working knowledge of the social, developmental, cultural norms and accepted legal principles applicable to the case presented at initial enquiry, and has the cultural competence skills to deal with the circumstances of the case.
- The expert is up-to-date with Continuing Professional Development appropriate to their discipline and expertise, and is in continued engagement with accepted supervisory mechanisms relevant to their practice.
- If the expert’s current professional practice is regulated by a UK statutory body (See Appendix 1) they are in possession of a current licence to practise or equivalent.
- If the expert’s area of professional practice is not subject to statutory registration (e.g. child psychotherapy, systemic family therapy, mediation, and experts in exclusively academic appointments) the expert should demonstrate appropriate qualifications and/ or registration with a relevant professional body on a case by case basis. Registering bodies usually provide a code of conduct and professional standards and should be accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (See Appendix 2). If the expertise is academic in nature (e.g. regarding evidence of cultural influences) then no statutory registration is required (even if this includes direct contact or interviews with individuals) but consideration should be given to appropriate professional accountability.
- The expert is compliant with any necessary safeguarding requirements, information security expectations, and carries professional indemnity insurance.
- If the expert’s current professional practice is outside the UK they can demonstrate that they are compliant with the FJC ‘Guidelines for the instruction of medical experts from overseas in family cases’.
- The expert has undertaken appropriate training, updating or quality assurance activity – including actively seeking feedback from cases in which they have provided evidence- relevant to the role of expert in the family courts in England and Wales within the last year.
- The expert has a working knowledge of, and complies with, the requirements of Practice Directions relevant to providing reports for and giving evidence to the family courts in England and Wales. This includes compliance with the requirement to identify where their opinion on the instant case lies in relation to other accepted mainstream views and the overall spectrum of opinion in the UK.