Apsana Begum, a Labour Member of Parliament for Poplar and Limehouse, asked the government whether it would launch a review into the family courts’ psychology ‘experts’ to ensure proper standards were being met.
Begum, who made the request on 25 February in the form of a written question, asked the Justice Minister “if he will conduct a review of the use of expert psychological witnesses in the family courts for the purposes of ensuring credibility, standards and consistency among experts particularly where allegations of domestic abuse have been made.”
In a written response, Tom Pursglove, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State said the government did not have any plans to review expert psychological witnesses in the family courts. The under secretary also outlined key legal provisions from 2010 and 2014 which had been enacted to control and monitor expert evidence in the family courts.
Despite these laws, serious concerns about experts used in the family courts remain.
Groundbreaking research produced in 2012 by forensic psychologist Professor Jane Ireland found that at least 20% of all family court psychology experts were unqualified, and that more than two thirds (65%) of expert reports were either of ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ quality. The research also warned that the figures were likely to be conservative.
The findings angered the medical community at the time and led to Ireland’s suspension from her academic practice after being accused of failing to follow research standards. She was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing by the Health and Care Professions Council.
Ireland’s research was also the focus of a Channel 4 documentary in 2012 which included real-world cases of parents who had been reunited with their children after the ‘expert’ evidence used to remove them from their care had been disproven.
A loophole in family court-focused legislation and policy allows unqualified psychology witnesses to offer evidence in family court cases. Researching Reform invited UK watchdog Social Work England (SWE) to close this loophole, but it has so far failed to do so.
The loophole – which could enable incompetent and dishonest family court experts to practice while enjoying total immunity from malpractice claims – allows individuals to avoid registering under protected titles listed by SWE.
Unqualified psychologists can still act as experts and dodge malpractice claims by avoiding the use of various protected titles like ‘educational’, ‘clinical’ or ‘forensic’. This means that they can offer their services without being registered or regulated.
In 2019, Researching Reform spoke with the Expert Witness Institute (EWI) about a new certification scheme for expert witnesses it had been asked to produce for Britain’s civil courts and then extended to include its family courts.
Simon Berney-Edwards, EWI’s Executive Manager, told Researching Reform that the scheme would create a gold standard for expert witnesses inside the court system.
Berney-Edwards said the process was made up of three rounds which would require potential expert witnesses to submit in-depth information about their qualifications and experience. If the initial submission was accepted, applicants would then undergo a compliance test. Successful candidates would then be placed on a waiting list and assessed in a mock court setting.
It is not clear whether the scheme has yet been rolled out in the family courts.
A recent call in August by the President of the Family Division, Andrew McFarlane encouraged more people to become medical experts in the family courts in England and Wales.
The Family Justice Council’s Expert Sub-Comittee’s invitation to an event for the drive said the family courts needed “more medical expert witnesses, in relation to the cause of injuries, but also experts from the allied professions including child and family psychiatrists and psychologists.” The seminar included a segment called “When expert evidence goes wrong – lessons from the case law.”
The demand for more witnesses and ongoing legal and policy gaps allowing unqualified individuals to offer evidence in the family courts are likely to enable more poor practice and unqualified witnesses into the system, which could lead to more unjust and potentially dangerous outcomes for children.