Experts in Family Courts

I don’t subscribe to The Times, but whilst waiting for my taxi to court yesterday I came across [a letter in*] yesterday’s edition from Psychologist Sam Westmacott:

Sir,

Professor Jane Ireland shocked psychologists when she published her research on expert witnesses (“The shocking tale of a mother seeking help” Camilla Cavendish, Opinion, Apr 12). Her data remains secret and un-reviewed. Normally, research is considered by other scientists who check that the conclusions drawn are based on sound evidence. Professor Ireland could not publish in an academic journal without that review. She wrote an article for a newspaper and made her claims on television.

Her claims were of profound concern to those of us working in the family courts and even more alarming for the families we assess. Her core claim that a fifth of psychologists working as expert witnesses were unqualified was not proven by the evidence in her report. 

She made the claim on the basis of the qualifications printed in each expert report. The authors were not contacted by the researchers to establish whether they met her stated criteria of membership of the British Psychological Society (BPS), registration with the Health Professions Council (HPC) and further training beyond their basic qualification.

I and many psychologists publish a short-form CV in expert witness reports. On that alone, I would be consigned to the unqualified fifth, although I am a member of the BPS, registered with the HPC, and have a range of additional qualifications. How many of that fifth were wrongly identified?

Sam Westmacott, Watchet, Somerset.

Other relevant reading on this blog: Experts Upon Experts, and Experts, the Press and a Sloppy Approach to Evidence Based Reporting.

*typographical error corrected 17/4/12

UPDATE 18/04/12: The following relevant authority in which Dr Westmacott is named has been drawn to my attention: L (children), Re [2006] EWCA Civ 1282.

25 thoughts on “Experts in Family Courts

  1. The issue of concern is not the doctor’s report but how family court use experts like Dr Hibbert. The experts chosen from a small group of individuals are instructed outside the Family & Civil Procedure Rules to provide a report which the Judge will rely on.The key word is rely, the expert is relied upon for a report that is favourable or consistent with the view views expressed already by the Judge and/or Social Worker/Guardian. The expert either directly from the court or indirectly through the interpretation of the court file, will provide a report which reinforces the courts view. This practice which is well under the veil of secrecy surrounding the family courts is aka “Conspiracy to Pervert the Course of Justice”. This is an indictable offence so the social services, experts supported by the Judiciary do everything in their power to stop the practice being exposed. A favourite is for the family court judge from the proceedings of a parent to hold no notice injunction proceedings as a Section 9 Hon Judge acting as a High Court judge to Order draconian injunctions against the same parent. The injunction hearing will accept oral statements to avoiding all due process. The hearing is not even lawful and simply theatre so that a Penal Notice can be attached to “something” which can be used to stop the parent exposing the criminal conduct of the parties. They will even stoop to jailing a pregnant women to protect themselves. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/8455841/A-mother-is-threatened-with-imprisonment-for-talking-to-her-MP.html

    • Winston,

      I agree that what you describe is very concerning. I do not agree that it is an accurate reflection of what is happening. I see judges disagree with experts all the time, and experts who disagree with social workers. Most often an instruction will be by all parties jointly with the process of collating documents and drafting instructions left to the child’s solicitors.

      I’m not sure what you mean by experts being instructed “outside” the family and civil procedure rules. If you mean the family procedure rules and practice directions are not always strictly complied with I agree (the civil procedure rules don’t apply at all).

      You may have legitimate complaint that the family courts are not transparent and that there is material that is of public interest that ought to be publishable, but on what basis do you say that a s9 judge exercising his injunctive High Court powers is unlawful?

  2. The claim that Professor Ireland’s report was not reviewed is simply false.

    • John Hemming,

      If I am mistaken I will amend – who reviewed it and where can I find the review published?

      • John Hemming – Oops – too hasty. You are referring to the letter I posted not to something I said. I did not think I had asserted that there was no review (although it describes itself as a summary report and says it has yet to be published in an academic journal). Are you planning to answer the question on the other related post about what I got factually wrong?

  3. If you read the comments under the letter on the website it is clear that Sam Westmacott has not gained any sympathy; on the contrary it has been pointed out that even a summary CV should state the subject’s professional qualifications and if Professor Ireland could not work out whether some experts were professionally qualified or affiliated from their CVs surely that is their fault and not hers.

  4. It is notable that psychologist Sam Westmacott doesn’t promote the perhaps obvious idea that Prof Irelands study be performed on a more extensive basis. Why would that be? Surely it would be in his interest and that of other psychologists, fake or otherwise, to have a definitive report/study commissioned that would settle the issue for sure.

    It is also notable that Sam Westmacott doesn’t refer to any of the other issues raised in Prof Irelands report, including the tendency to not actually meet the person being written about, the use of unqualified opinion, the employment of sometimes bizarre personality tests. Why is that? Is it because he didn’t feel the subjects were worthy of discussion, or was it because he accepts those findings and no argument against is possible?

    Such as;

    – Reports where opinions are presented where data was completely absent, i.e.
    “Comments on self-esteem, emotional loneliness, perspective taking, sexual risk,
    but include no data” [rater comment].

    – Reports where the data is completely missed, “Does not include fact section –
    goes straight to opinion” or “cites psychometrics but no scores” [rater comment].
    (from page 16)

    Presumably Sam Westmacott will have made a formal complaint against Prof Ireland about her research and findings commissioned and funded by the Family Justice Council with the BPS (which would help in getting another report commissioned, to be accurate of course).

    Regrettably Sam Westmacott’s claims that ‘She wrote an article for a newspaper and made her claims on television’ isn’t quite correct. The report, as detailed on the header page, was commissioned;

    ‘Research conducted with funds from the Family Justice Council (an independent body,
    funded by the Ministry of Justice), provided to the University of Central Lancashire. ‘

    Presumrably Sam Westmacott read this but wasn’t able to get around to recollecting it when it was necessary (to be accurate).

    Rachel Livermore
    Associate Editor
    Dramatis Personae – http://www.dramatis.hostcell.net

    • Rachel,
      Firstly – apologies I have just retrieved your comment from spam. Sorry for delay.
      Secondly – Sam Westmacott is female I think.
      As to the questions you post about Dr Westmacott’s view – you’d have to ask her. But I suppose that the letter was aimed at concern that in some respects at least the report might be liable to mislead as to the extent of some of the alleged problems.
      You correctly identify that the research was commissioned by the FJC, but you may have submitted your comment before I posted a copy of a letter from the FJC to Dr Westmacott confirming that they were not sufficiently happy with the report to publish it themselves. Evidently it did not live up to their expectations / requirements. (link here: http://pinktape.co.uk/rants/fjc-distances-itself-from-experts-report/)
      Lucy

  5. I suppose it is inevitable that having poked her head above the parapet someone will query Jane Ireland’s methodology – elsewhere her qualifications to write the report have been called into doubt. I think we’ve already established that the published report is only a summary and she hasn’t claimed the sample is representative. I notice Sam Westmacott doesn’t address the claim that two thirds of the reports were poor or very poor.

    The current investigation of Dr Hibbert (and his bizarre tests) and past cases like Roy Meadow, David Southall, Marietta Higgs et al show there are serious questions over the expert witness system; it seems to take years and thousands of wrecked families before even an obviously unsuitable witness is exposed and removed – undoubtedly the secrecy of the system obstructs this process.

  6. It doesn’t lie in the mouth of someone who hasn’t actually tested a contentious (not to say personally damaging) thesis to complain that it is all the subject’s fault for not anticipating what the researcher would want to know, but wouldn’t ask. And it shouldn’t lie in their supporter’s mouths either.

    The proposition that it is all a conspiracy is daft.

    The conflating of over-enthusiastic theorising (Higgs), lack of realisation of a different expertise required (Meadows) and lack of direct knowledge (Southall) – and I am putting all those allegations at the highest that the EVIDENCE (rather than fantasy) permits – into one attack on the “expert witness system” is either deliberately distorted or a triumph of ideological commitment over cold fact. Either way, it adds nothing to rational debate. When linked to the emotive language, it merely suggests that Mr Langford is more interested in achieving his pre-determined “acceptable” result than in thinking through the issue and – yet again – damages his cause in the eyes of people who aren’t already persuaded.

    It should be set out clearly: there is no conspiracy. Judges actually do try to do the best they can. Not every disappointed litigant has suffered a miscarriage of justice. Not every mistake is a sinister triumph of the system over the good people who it is designed to oppress. Society is not governed by a small group of people who control all the other people (and how insulting is that proposition?). And, may God forgive me for saying so, not every assertion of injustice or unfairness is either justified or honest.

  7. […] ease of reference other relevant reading on this blog can be found here: Experts in Family Courts, Experts Upon Experts, and Experts, the Press and a Sloppy Approach to Evidence Based […]

  8. I’m not sure from some of the comments here that all those who are offering a view are aware that psychologists’ reports (the subject of the Ireland report)are almost always requested by a parent, not by another party in the case nor the judge. Furthermore, the Norgrove report and the LSC are trying hard to reduce the use of psychologists, which weakens a conspiracy theory.

  9. Surely if Prof. Ireland’s report is rejected by peer reviewed journals, this simply demonstrates that the peer reviewers are corrupt fundamentalists determined to further their evil child snatching agenda and stamp out any criticism. Anyone—academic or otherwise—who expresses any criticism of Prof Ireland is either a) corrupt and self-serving, b) blind to the hegemony or c) determined to further their evil child snatching agenda.

    If Prof. Ireland’s report is eventually accepted for publication in a peer reviewed journal with whatever revisions are required for publication—even if it results in her report resiling from the claims in her press release—it means that the claims in her press release were accurate. It also proves, conclusively, that there is an evil child snatching agenda, and that absolutely all criticisms of the family justice system are wholly correct.

    In conclusion, there is an evil child snatching agenda and the courts are corrupt. Any evidence will be taken to prove this. Resistance is futile.

    Except, of course, there are some serious questions raised. Which is why it would be great to see this research in full in a form that has met the standards of academic review.

    I’m concerned about the possibility that experts are not sufficiently engaged in clinical practice. I’m also concerned that experts might be writing reports and making recommendations on the basis of other professionals’ subjective views. It is troubling to think there may be some expert witnesses out there who are not properly accredited. And, quite frankly, I think there’s a strong argument that experts ought to make their relevant professional memberships known to the parties.

    Without directing the following at anyone on this thread (except, of course, Mr Hemming, who has done his usual trick of dropping in, making a brief accusation of unspecified factual inaccuracy, then vanishing never to return), it’s a crying shame that the discussion always becomes so polarised and absolute.

  10. Oh dear… the “” pretend formatting code that was supposed to mark a clear break between parody and seriousness has been gobbled up by WordPress treating it as proper HTML formatting.

    So: top three paragraphs are tongue-in-cheek. Bottom three are serious.

  11. Northern Lights

    Jim Nately,

    “Oh dear… the “” pretend formatting code that was supposed to mark a clear break between parody and seriousness has been gobbled up by WordPress treating it as proper HTML formatting.

    So: top three paragraphs are tongue-in-cheek. Bottom three are serious.”

    Thanks for clearing that up, Jim- for a moment there I thought you were J. Hemming or one of the other posters using a pseudonym.

  12. If I have been following the current events in relation family courts correctly it would appear that the issue is regarding a)The quality of reports and b)Is the expert witness suitably qualified. This reminds me of a similar dillema I attempted to discuss with both the BPS and in the letters page of the psychologist.
    My concern was regarding the increasing employment of forensic psychologists in mental health services and the questions I put were:
    Under what circumstances would it be more appropriate for a patient whose behaviours have been considered to arise as a result of mental health problems require treatment from a professional with no formal mental health training i.e. a forensic psychologist?

    When a forensic psychologist offers treatment, is it made explicitly clear to patients that a professional with no formal mental health qualification is treating them? And if so, how is this monitored? (with regards to informed consent)

    Is it the case that some patients may receive therapy from a clinical psychologist whilst another with the same diagnosis will receive treatment from a forensic psychologist? How would a team reach a decision about which of these professionals would be best equipped to provide the treatment?

    Are patients given the choice about whether they wish to work with a forensic psychologist or clinical psychologist? Particularly when they have committed no offence

    Do forensic psychologists work with patients on trauma issues?

    Is the training for clinical and forensic psychologists so similar that companies can legitimately advertise for either clinical or forensic psychologists or are positions advertised as either/or merely to fill positions that are hard to fill?

    Do some forensic psychologists work in healthcare settings (particularly Independent hospitals) without proper clinical supervision from clinical psychologists?

    If forensic psychologists are employed within secure settings to deliver offending programmes have these programmes been validated within a clinical population?

    Is it ethical to deliver prison-based programmes in a healthcare setting without significant adaptation? Being located with the health system implies that the offending was a result of distress and mental health problems?

    I have increasing concerns with regards to the treatment of patients who have very complex mental health problems. I believe the trend of enmeshing both clinical and forensic psychologists in a healthcare setting is confusing and gives mixed messages.I am also aware that many health professionals are notaware of the difference between a clinical and a forensic psychlogist suggesting the need for increased transparency

    Within my own profession there are clear boundaries for practicing within spheres of competence and as such a Registered general nurse would not be employed to treat the mental health issues of a patient, regardless of whether they have come across them in their practice. I am of the opinion that forensic psychologists are trained to treat the offending behaviour of a normative population and as such would have very little value in providing treatment to people who have offended as a result of mental health problems unless provided with further mental health training and regular clinical supervision.

    My reasons for seeking clarity for this issue was my increased concern that hospitals are employing psychologists without formal mental health training to assess, write clinical reports and deliver treatment to people with complex mental health problems. If this is the case I believe it to be detrimental to the welfare of some of the most vulnerable people in our community. It is also the beginning of a slippery slope to criminalizing mental Illness.

    Perhaps some research is urgently required to ascertain if the quality of patient care (formulation intervention and report writing) is impacted when delivered by either a clinical or a forensic psychologist. The question is who would be unbiased enough to conduct such a piece of research. I believe that Psychology should put its house in order and introduce some clear demarcations with regards to its specialised fields and stop hiding under the guise of “Applied Psychologist”. Then the public and courts would have some transparency to influence their choices.

    • Des, Thanks. It would probably help some of the readers of Pink Tape if you gave us a short explanation of the difference between clinical and forensic psychologists.
      Lucy

  13. Simon, Julie, at what point did I allege a conspiracy theory? It really does seem that some people see allegations of conspiracy theories everywhere.

    I was trying – albeit ineptly – to make the following points:

    1. The high profile cases I mentioned show that it can take a very long time before the system identifies that there may be a problem with an expert witness;

    2. By that time a great many children will have been taken from their families or have had other inappropriate intervention in their lives;

    3. Even when an expert’s recommendations have been found to be faulty, decisions are rarely reversed and children are rarely returned;

    4. The secrecy of the system – for example, the anonymisation of experts in published judgements – makes it impossible for observers – whether academics or campaigners – to spot patterns, and this will in turn delay any investigation into the expert or their eventual removal.

    I don’t think these observations have anything to do with “conspiracy theories”, “ideological commitment” or a desire for “predetermined results”. I do think that there are faults in the system which can be rectified, and I hope that both David Norgrove’s and Jane Ireland’s reports will assist in that process.

  14. As I am led to believe; Clinical psychologists are trained to assess formulate and treat people with mental health problems. Their training is contextualised into mental health serices and I belive they have to complete placements in clinical settings including older adults children, adults,. I also believe that they can practise as psychotherapists and are introduced to the possible aetology of poor mental health including attachment issues, trauma, abuse and neuropsychology. As such in my experience they tend to think about clients in a more holistic way formulate their assessmets and treatment within the context of proccess (thus paying attention to behaviours and traits that the untrained may consider innocious or indeed judgemental) Treatment is more idiosyncratic as they are trained to work with conceptualisations and various psychotherapeutic models.

    As I am currently aware Forensic psychogists are trained to assess risk( using static risk assessment tools) and deliver manualised programmes to individuals who have commited crmes that are not considered to have been driven by poor mental health. I think they are employed by the prison service for this purpose.I do not believe that they are trained or employed to assess or treat mental illness as this is usualy the responsability of prison mental health inreach teams.

    Sadly there appears to be an increased presence of forensic psychologists practising outside the criminal justice system and offerring themselves as psychotherapists to treat people with mental health problems regardless of any criminal elementbeing present. Many professionals and most of the public are likely to be unaware of this dynamic and I am not sure the nascent HPC have taken sufficient steps to monitor this dillema.

    Thus the issue regarding the qualifications and skills of psychologists being sufficient to complete court reports is the tip of the iceberg and there should be more regulation with regards to assessing when “applied psychologists” are suitably qualified to complete reports, assessments and formulations; deliver treatment and indeed what areas of research they are able to undartake.

  15. I am glad I have found your website. Your posts and all the comments are very enlightening. I am presently in care proceedings to get my daughters back from [edited] Council. We (my partner and I) were mentioned by Camilla Cavendish in her Times column that recently revisisted the problems with the secret family courts and so called experts. We have sadly encountered a few of these experts. If only you and your commentators could see the situation from the parents and families point of view. I can only say it is hell on earth.

  16. Expert witnesses in family law usually a psychiatrist only express their own opinion. They do write reports about people they have never met. I experienced this in an Irish family law court. It is truly amazing what is said in these courts about people who cannot defend themselves. We who have been through the system have all the paperwork to prove the irrationality of this cruel money fuelled farce.

  17. I have read with interest the comments on Prof Ireland’s report. I have heard her explain her research methods, findings and recommendations at a number of seminars she has given in Merseyside. The hysterical press reaction seems to me to have misrepresented her conclusions as did the equally hysterical response from some of the psychological profession.

    There used to be a time when adult psychologists were instructed in almost every case, often at the behest of the advocate for the parent as a last ditch attempt to find something ‘good’ to say on their behalf. Now, certainly in the North West and I suspect nationwide, judges are becoming much more circumspect about spending money on adult psychologist reports and seek more detailed and focused justification for requiring an expert assessment, particularly an adult assessment. I worry that the pendulum is swinging too much the other way as it is often only a psychologist or psychiatrist that will identify ways in which an parent may be assisted in the future. The family system is moving rapidly away from any attempt to address difficulties parents and children have and towards simply making faster decisions based on what has factually happened, although that is another debate…

    In essence, Prof Ireland tries to formulate a ‘base line’ set of criteria for the quality of reports used in family proceedings. Any decent and experienced advocate would frankly not have been surprised by a number of observations she made and will have seen reports, in a minority of cases, that did not come up to scratch. Likewise, decent experts have nothing to fear from her conclusions, as it is very likely they would met the criteria she suggests or could readily do so. For example it seems to me that an expert’s CV should contain all their qualifications etc and not be in ‘short form’ especially if that short from does not enable the court and the parties to determine whether the expert is sufficiently qualified or experienced to express the opinion sought of them.

    Any advocate starting out would do well, in my opinion, to read her report before cross-examining a psychologist or agreeing to a particular psychologist being instructed in a case. So would the psychologist!

    Like familoo, I have seen many examples of Judges disagreeing with psychologists’ conclusions. I personally have never had an experience of a psychologist writing a report about someone they have not met I have great sympathy with anyone who has been subjected to such a bizarre event. I have some difficult in thinking of a set of circumstances where it would be appropriate.

    I have long thought that there should be more publicity about family proceedings, as long as the children concerned are not identified or identifiable. I suspect that ‘public opinion’ would often be less forgiving of some of the poor or harmful parenting some of these cases involve than many judges and social workers. Likewise, it is the spotlight of scrutiny that leads to better practices, in my experience.

  18. Ive got a very bad report from an expert psychiatrist is there a way of complaining in the private law. side

    • A party is entitled to challenge the expert’s opinion – to do this tell the court you would like an opportunity to ask them questions at a hearing as you don’t agree with them. You (or your lawyer) can put your criticisms to the expert then. If the judge agrees your criticisms are valid the judge may decide not to rely on the report.
      If you want to make a complaint about an expert you are usually entitled to complain to their professional body. Many professional are registered with the HCPC, in the case of psychiatrists I think a complaint should be directed to the GMC (see here)
      I suggest that you speak to your solicitor about these issues if you have one.

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