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:


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.

The Ethics of Friending

The Bar : meet Social Media…Social Media : meet The Bar. How doo you doo? *whispers – don’t shake hands whatever you do!*

The blogging bar is small but has grown exponentially since I struck out almost alone in 2007, to the snooty derision of certain colleagues. Even those members of the bar who still rely on a typing service rather than their own fingertips are beginning to pop up on Linkedin, no doubt prompted (dragged) by more savvy clerks and Chambers CEOs. And a reasonable few are embracing twitter, or at least taking a curious peek at it from the sidelines. Appropriate caution and a bit of healthy skepticism are one thing, but what of the ethical dimension? There are plenty of rules of conduct that apply to social media generally, and a lack of regard to these can result in a twitter storm or unpleasant trolling incident for the naive or ill prepared, but above and beyond this – are there ethical considerations particular to the bar? I think there are. And I don’t think that we have thunk them through enough just yet.

Client confidentiality is an obvious one (and for family lawyers contempt of court arising from the privacy of proceedings). It’s been dealt with before (e.g. here) and I won’t rehearse it here but it’s pretty fundamental and it one that a surprising number of lawyers on twitter seem to get wrong. What you tweet or blog may be anonymous to most people, but will it be unidentifiable to your client, your opponent, the other party or the judge who sees what you’ve posted, with your location visible? There are judgment calls to be made all the time when we blog about real clients and real cases.

And as the Geeklawyer episode recently demonstrated it is possible for tweets to bring the profession into disrepute (although the Geeklawyer case was about more than just conduct by tweeting). Whilst most people with a pinch of common sense don’t get too twisty or hysterical about a poorly judged tweet, twitter is full of people without such common sense who thrive on frenzied and immediate overreaction. So it pays to be careful. It is possible to libel, offend, harass or commit a criminal offence all in 140 characters or less. Continue Reading…