Scandal of ‘unqualified’ experts who advise our family courts:
Decisions about the care of thousands of children routinely flawed
By Katherine Faulkner
Life-changing decisions about the care of thousands of children are routinely being made on flawed evidence from poorly qualified ‘experts’ in the family courts, a damning study reveals.
More than a fifth of these vital reports are being produced by people who are completely unqualified, the Channel 4 News investigation found.
‘Experts’ used in hundreds of family court proceedings are frequently unqualified or unreliable, the study reveals. In some cases, reports on parents or children are being given to courts by doctors who have not even seen the individuals concerned. Until now, these ‘expert witnesses’ – often psychologists or psychiatrists – have largely escaped scrutiny due to the draconian secrecy surrounding the family courts.
But in a unique study for the Family Justice Council, Professor Jane Ireland – a forensic psychologist who has herself been an expert witness – examined over 100 expert witness reports used in family court cases. Incredibly, she found that 20 per cent had been produced by people who were not qualified at all. A further fifth had been carried out by people who were writing reports in areas entirely beyond their knowledge and qualifications.
In addition, as many as 90 per cent of the reports had been produced by ‘expert’ witnesses who were no longer in current practice at all, but were simply working as ‘professional expert witnesses’. Often, these professional experts – who rake in thousands of pounds in fees from the chaotic family courts system – have not practised for years, leaving them out of touch with developments in their field.
They are often appointed to assess the suitability of a parent or parents to continue to look after their child in care proceedings brought by local councils. They can also be used in access cases following the separation of a child’s parents. Thousands of children have their futures decided in the family courts every year and because of strict rules on what can be reported, often little is revealed about what happens once the court doors are closed.
In the past, parents have bitterly complained that they have not even been allowed to know the names of the paid expert witnesses who testified against them.
That has now changed but Professor Ireland, of the University of Central Lancashire, said 65 of the 100 reports she examined were ‘poorly’ or ‘very poorly’ carried out.
Some reports were found to ‘cite opinion without conducting a formal assessment’ or show a complete lack of understanding of the conditions discussed. One was even found to have ‘completed an assessment on the mother without actually seeing her’.
Professor Ireland said an ‘urgent review’ of expert witnesses in the family courts was needed. ‘I think we were very concerned and perturbed by some of the reports that we read,’ she told Channel 4 News.
‘Some of the most startling results were the sheer number of expert psychologists . . . who are reporting that their entire job is the production of assessment reports for courts.
‘I think the results from the research are enough to suggest that we do need an urgent review across the range of expert witnesses that the courts are employing.’
The Family Justice Council is an independent public body set up in 2004 and funded by the Ministry of Justice. It is charged with monitoring the family justice system and advising the Government and the courts on how the system can be improved.
One mother involved in family court proceedings told how a psychiatrist who had never seen her wrote a 14-page report on her and her family. The day after the psychiatrist signed off his report he was suspended by the General Medical Council for a separate offence. Despite this, his report was still used by the courts.
‘He’s never seen us, never spoken to us,’ she said, ‘and yet he’s ended up writing 14 pages, with recommendations, that he could not possibly have made if he had spoken to any of us or had he read through the court papers.’
She said her custody case dragged on for five years because of the competing testimonies of no fewer than eight expert witnesses.
‘The court system in England is barbaric,’ she said. ‘It does not allow parents to be given a voice, it doesn’t allow their children to be given a voice.
‘But what it does instead is it focuses on employing expert witnesses – at huge expense.’
Nigel Priestley, a family solicitor in Huddersfield, said: ‘If the statistics are that 20 per cent are unqualified, that is not just a mess, that is staggering.’