A new guide to help clinical psychologists understand how family court assessments should be produced during the COVID-19 outbreak warns that assessments undertaken remotely may not be valid.

The guide, which was issued on 29 May and written by Dr Miriam Silver, Dr Jaime Craig, and Dr Helen Rodwell, explains that there is no evidence or research which validates any kind of remote assessment carried out on behalf of the family courts, including investigations carried out by psychologists.

As the UK starts to re-open schools and some of its businesses in full, face-to-face assessments are also discussed. The guide concludes that enabling this kind of assessment will depend on the levels of infections in certain areas, the health of the psychologist and whether the psychologist feels comfortable enabling a person-to-person assessment. Advice on how to minimise infection during face-to-face meetings is also given.

The guidance then asks psychologists to be mindful of the power imbalance between experts and the people being assessed.

It says, “Expert witness assessments inherently involve a power imbalance between the psychologist expert and the assessed person. This power imbalance can make it much harder for the assessed person to state that they are unable to manage or communicate well during an online assessment or to feel able to raise concerns about the proposed steps to manage infection risk.”

The guidance requires psychologists to explain how they adapted assessments, the rationale for the adaptation and give an opinion “as to the extent that this is likely to impact on the validity of their assessment”.

The document highlights some of the possible changes in children’s and families’ behaviours during the lockdown and explains that psychologists will need to be careful when trying to understand whether those changes are important.

The guide also reminds expert witnesses that the increased use of remote technology could also cause families who do not have easy access to the internet difficulties, and that those difficulties should not be used against parents and extended family members during assessments.

The very last segment of the document emphasises the need for psychologists to understand the serious nature of these reports and the life-altering consequences that stem from these assessments, as well as ensuring they do not place children and families at further risk of harm through their conduct.

The conclusion is very much worth a read, so we’re adding it below:

“Psychologist experts have a duty to the Family Court to complete valid, reliable and fair assessments. The gravity of decisions being made for children and families is high and will have an enduring and wide-reaching impact which can be difficult to predict.

Reliable and valid assessment-based psychological opinions therefore remain crucial. At the current time, parents, children and families who are undergoing Family Court proceedings are living under increased stress and their usual access to services is likely to have been negatively impacted.

During the pandemic, parents will have reduced capacity to demonstrate engagement and capacity to change.

As the Family Drug and Alcohol Court advise: “No amount of creativity can remove the grave concern about the injustice of making potentially life-changing decisions for children without due regard to the test that is applied in normal circumstances.”

Psychologist experts also have a duty of care to the parents and children that they assess, as well as to themselves and members of their team. It is essential that their assessments do not place people at additional risk of harm to their physical or psychological health.”

The psychology sector has come under fire for failing to address a loophole which allows unqualified individuals to practice as psychologists in the family courts. Under current guidelines, unqualified psychologists can act as experts and dodge malpractice claims, by avoiding the use of  protected titles such as ‘educational’, ‘clinical’ or ‘forensic’.

The loophole allows unqualified and potentially dangerous individuals to offer psychology services without the need to be  registered and regulated by the UK’s watchdog, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

A damning report in 2012 by Professor Jane Ireland found that over 20% of psychologists  in  family cases  were  unqualified  and  65%  of  expert  reports  were  either  of  ‘poor’  or  ‘very  poor’  quality.

You can access the guidance here. 

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