The head of the family courts, Andrew McFarlane, has published a guide which looks at conflicts of interest among expert witnesses called to give evidence in family law cases.
The mini guide will make up part of a larger guide addressing the use of expert witnesses in cases where allegations of parental alienation are made. The full guide will be issued in 2023.
The interim guide sets out the need to ensure that any conflicts of interest are disclosed by the expert, and that the expert has an appropriate body of knowledge qualifying him or her to give evidence.
Unfortunately, the guidance relies solely on the honesty of the expert in making a declaration about his or her potential conflicts of interest in what McFarlane calls a “Statement of Truth.”
The guide does also warn the system against allowing expert witnesses and connected associates to provide services and interventions to the families in these cases. This is what the document says:
“Recommendations for interventions deliverable only by the instructed expert or their associates are inconsistent with [transparency]. It increases the risk of bias, can limit appropriate oversight of interventions and risks delays as it may create barriers to families accessing appropriate, timely support local to them. The court should be extremely cautious when asked to consider assessment and treatment packages offered by the same or linked providers.”
The guidance adds:
“The court should be mindful that any program of work proposed by an expert that raises a professional conflict is contrary to best practice and challenges the integrity of any updating expert opinion. Before a court orders any further work, which involves the appointed expert who has assessed within proceedings or someone with a related financial interest, the court should warn itself about endorsing this approach and scrutinize all available options.”
No formal definition of parental alienation exists, but it is sometimes described as a phenomenon in which one parent psychologically manipulates their child against the other parent, with a view to either encouraging the child to align with the alienating parent’s view, or to erase the targeted parent from the child’s life forever.
While most people agree that some parents going through a divorce or separation can and do try to influence their children’s views of the other parent, ongoing attempts to define the behaviour as a recognised mental health condition are considered to be controversial and unfounded by some experts.
A growing lack of confidence in Britain’s family court system and its ability to work out who is genuinely at fault (ie. who is the real victim in such cases) has also played a significant role in campaign groups pushing back against any efforts to formally recognise the phenomenon or place it in a category of its own in family cases.