‘Professional experts’ fail family courts

Family courts – and the children whose futures are decided in them – are being let down by ‘expert’ reports that are poor quality, incompetent and prone to subjective opinion rather than professional assessment.

Research conducted by the University of Central Lancaster and Mersey Care NHS Trust examined  the reports submitted by psychologists in 127 family court case files in England. The analysis rated 65% of the reports as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

It identified a growing number of psychologists who appear to earn a living exclusively from compiling reports for court and who are no longer in any professional practice where they meet patients. Traditionally expert evidence was rooted in experience from practice.

Lead author of the report, Professor Jane Ireland, drew attention to the fact that courts tend to rely on the evidence of single expert. It is therefore crucial that the expert is qualified, up to date and specifically qualified and experienced in the area s/he is being asked to assess.

On average experts charge £120 an hour for assessing families and compiling reports and can generate  fees of £2-£4,000  or more. That is more than they could earn in clinical practice.

Yet the research revealed a fifth of the ‘experts’ weren’t members of either of the two UK regulatory bodies. Some experts had not even conducted interviews with the families they were asked to assess. On the other hand some contained subjective and inappropriate value judgements such as ‘Miss X is an attractive mum and has a lovely personality’.  The authors state that the confidentiality of the family courts designed to protect the interests of the children involved has protected the ‘experts’ from proper scrutiny of the quality of their work.

Although this work relates to the English court system, Families Need Fathers Scotland is concerned that the same criticism will apply to Scottish court reports.  Research published last year by the Scottish Government raises similar issues.