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.