An article in the July-August edition of Private Eye magazine highlights a controversial loophole which could allow incompetent and unscrupulous Family Court experts to practice whilst enjoying immunity from malpractice claims.

It describes how unqualified psychologists are able to act as experts, and dodge malpractice claims by simply avoiding the use of various “protected” titles like ‘educational’, ‘clinical’ or ‘forensic’. This means that they can offer their services without the need to be  registered and regulated by the UK’s watchdog, the Health and Care Professions Council  (HCPC).

The article goes on to express concerns about unregistered court experts who are often invited to give evidence on cases involving rape, child exploitation and child contact and care cases. The piece focuses on one particular psychologist who is not registered but uses several of the protected titles on his website and has worked on high profile and often complex child protection cases. However, as he calls himself a consultant and not a psychologist the HCPC maintains he is not misusing a protected title  and therefore cannot act.

This development is particularly serious because the consultant works in the Family Court advising on child welfare matters. The new Family Justice Council Guidelines also require that psychologists working in the family courts as experts must be HCPC registered – which this psychologist is not.

Professor Jane Ireland’s 2012 report detailing serious concerns about the quality of expert evidence from Family Court psychiatrists and psychologists – it found that over 20% of psychologists  in  family cases  were  unqualified  and  65%  of  expert  reports  were  either  of  ‘poor’  or  ‘very  poor’  quality – is also mentioned in the Private Eye piece. Jane’s report was responsible for the new Family Justice guidelines on expert witnesses which were designed to protect the public.

It’s clear that the law and policy in this area needs urgent attention. Researching Reform is a strong advocate of regulating this area further in order to ensure that the quality of expert evidence in the Family Court, and in other courts too, conforms to best practice guidelines.

We are adding a redacted version of the  Private Eye piece below:

“A  gaping  hole  in  the  regulation  of  psychologists  could  put  the  public  at  risk  from  unscrupulous,  inept  or  unaccountable ‘experts’.  

Providing  psychologists  don’t  use  one  of  nine  so-called  ‘protected  titles’  –  for  example,  educational,  clinical,  or  forensic  – any  can  offer  their  services  without  the  need  to  be  registered  and  regulated  by  the  U.K.’s  watchdog,  the  Health  and  Care Professions  Council  (HCPC).  Even  if  serious  concerns  or  complaints  are  raised  about  them,  they  remain  immune  from investigation  because  they’re  not  registered.

Nowhere  is  the  danger  of  the  regulatory  body’s  impotence  more  starkly  illustrated  than  in  the  courts,  where  it  seems  that unregistered,  unqualified  and  potentially  unfit  psychologists  can  operate  as  ‘experts’  in  even  the  most  serious  cases  of murder,  rape  or  child  sexual  exploitation.  No-one  illustrates  this  absurd  Catch-22  better  than  ‘consultant  psychologist’ [edited],  who  has  acted  as  an  expert  in  several  high-profile  cases,  including  the  [edited]  child  grooming  case,  where a  gang  raped  and  trafficked  underage  girls.

[Edited],  a  trained  educational  psychologist  who  used  to  work  in  local  government,  has  been  the  subject  of  at  least  four complaints,  including  manipulating  data  and  acting  beyond  his  qualifications  and  expertise.  Three  have  not  been  investigated because  he  has  never  been  registered  with  the  HCPC.  Because  of  the  fourth,  his  application  for  registration  in  2012  was refused,  when  he  was  judged  to  be  ‘not  of  good  character’.

According  to  his  website,  [edited]  also  acts  in  the  family  courts  in  sensitive  child  contact  and  care  cases,  in  what  looks  like a  clear  breach  of  new  guidelines  from  the  Family  Justice  Council  (a  public  body  which  advises  on  family  justice  matters) and  the  industry  body  the  British  Psychological  Society  (BPS).  The  guidelines  state  that  family  courts  expect  all psychologists  acting  as  experts  to  be  HCPC-registered  unless  they  are  academics.

In  fact  his  website  offers  services  in  several  of  the  areas  of  expertise  covered  by  protected  titles  (educational,  forensic, practitioner,  counselling),  again  contrary  to  what  the  BPS  says  in  its  online  directory  of  chartered  psychologists  (in  which [edited]  is  listed).  It  says  that  ‘anyone  offering  services  within  these  [protected  title]  areas  must  also  be  registered’  with  the HCPC.

[Edited]  website  logo  even  uses  the  word  ‘educational’  –  but  because  he  simply  chooses  to  call  himself  a  ‘consultant’,  the HCPC  maintains  he  is  not  misusing  a  protected  title  and  thus  it  can’t  act.  It  adds  that  statutory  regulation  and corresponding  regulatory  titles  are  decided  by  the  government,  and  it’s  for  ministers  to  change  them.  The  BPS,  meanwhile, says  it  now  only  ‘advises’  on  standards  and  best  practice,  ‘but  where  we  are  aware  of  gaps  in  regulation,  we  raise  these with  the  regulator’  –  i.e.  the  HCPC!

The  BPS  says  it  can’t  comment  on  individual  members,  but  adds  that  it  has  raised  concerns  that  the  general  title ‘psychologist’  is  not  protected.  It  still  seems  happy  to  promote  [edited],  though.

As  the  HCPC  admits,  [edited]  is  not  the  only  one  dancing  rings  around  registration.  Prof.  Jane  Ireland  –  author  of  a damning  2012  study  which  triggered  the  recent  family  court  reform,  having  found  that  one  in  five  psychologists  in  family cases  was  working  beyond  their  expertise  and  65%  of  expert  reports  were  either  of  ‘poor’  or  ‘very  poor’  quality  –  tells  the Eye:  ‘All  practising  psychologists  who  act  as  expert  witnesses  should  be  regulated  so  that  the  public  are  protected’.

[Edited]  was  refused  registration  because  of  ‘concerns  about  his  character’  after  staff  at  [edited]  Young  offenders Institution  asked  in  2012  for  proof  of  identity  and,  er,  HCPC  registration.  It  triggered  lengthy  and  ‘inappropriate’ correspondence  between  [edited]  and  the  jail.  An  HCPC  regulatory  panel  threw  out  his  appeal  in  2013,  saying  he  was completely  unable  to  accept  that  his  written  outbursts  had  been  unacceptable,  that  he  had  demonstrated  no  insight  into  the potential  consequences  and  that  he  had  shown  no  remorse.  The  panel  said  that  he  had  displayed  a  similar  attitude  in communication  with  the  HCPC  itself,  that  it  could  not  rule  out  a  repetition  of  similar  behaviour  and  that  his  conduct  would ‘damage  public  confidence  in  the  regulatory  process’.

[Edited]  response  to  the  three  complaints  made  by  fellow  psychologists  has  been  to  fire  off  counter-allegations,  the  irony being  that  those  properly  registered  and  regulated  complainants  then  find  themselves  under  HCPC  investigation,  while  he escapes.

Thus,  in  the  [edited]  grooming  case,  [edited],  a  registered  chartered  psychologist,  was  so  alarmed  to  find  an unregistered  educational  psychologist,  whom  she  considered  neither  qualified  to  reach  his  conclusions  about  an  adult  sex attacker  nor  completely  open  about  those  conclusions,  that  she  complained  to  both  the  HCPC  and  the  BPS.  She  was  told neither  could  do  anything.  Instead  she  herself  was  investigated  when  [edited]  fired  off  a  counterblast.  ‘It  was  very  irritating, but  of  course  there  was  no  merit  in  his  complaints  and  they  were  all  swiftly  dismissed,’  she  told  the  Eye.  [Edited]  boasts on  his  website  about  the  [edited]  case:  ‘Of  the  seven  men  convicted,  five  were  given  life  sentences.  The  man  I  assessed was  given  a  sentence  substantially  below  that  of  his  co-defendants,  and  without  a  tariff’.

Another  victim  of  [edited]’s  revenge  salvos  was  [edited],  an  academic  and  leading  clinical  and  forensic psychologist.  After  taking  advice,  he  complained  to  the  then  regulator,  the  BPS,  that  [edited] had  manipulated  IQ  test scores  in  the  trial  of  a  man  accused  in  2008  of  converting  replica  weapons  into  firearms  used  in  a  series  of  murders.  It made  the  man  appear  less  intelligent,  and  therefore  less  culpable.  [The academic]  told  the  Court  at  the  time  he  had  ‘never encountered  such  extraordinary  conduct  before’.  In  the  event  it  seems  [edited]  evidence  held  little  or  no  sway:  the defendant  was  convicted  and  sentenced  to  life.

When  [edited]  duly  counter-complained,  however,  the  BPS  decided  to  investigate  [edited] complaint  first.  It  swiftly  exonerated [the academic];  but  it  never  got  round  to  investigating  [edited] because,  in  the  meantime,  fitness  to  practise  and  regulatory issues  had  been  passed  to  the  HCPC.  [The academic] told  the  Eye:  ‘Guidelines  indicate  that  the  need  to  protect  clients from  unsafe  practice  from  psychological  experts  and  professional  witnesses  is  paramount.  But  there  is  absolutely  no protection  if  a  psychologist  is  not  registered’.

In  a  third  case  involving  [edited],  while  he  again  escaped  investigation  of  complaints  about  his  expertise  and  findings,  it took  almost  two  years  before  his  unfounded  counter-allegations  against  a  registered  psychologist  were  dismissed  –  this  time with  an  HCPC  apology.

No-one  can  say  whether  the  complaints  about  [edited]  would  have  been  upheld.  The  scandal  is  that  because  he  can  so easily  act  outside  the  regulatory  system,  no-one  even  bothers  to  consider  them.”

What changes would you like to see in the regulation of Family Court experts? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

A very big thank you to Roger Crawford, who alerted us to this article.

Private Eye