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Research evaluates expert witnesses and quality of court reports in the family courts

Report expresses concern about full-time 'expert' witnesses who do not maintain a clinical practice

The quality of psychological experts and their reports, presented at family court proceedings in the UK, show some inconsistencies according to new research carried out by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Evaluating Expert Witness Psychological Reports: Exploring Quality, was part funded by the Family Justice Council as part of their commitment to expert witness work and the continued review of standards across all expert witnesses.

Results of this study, the first systematic quality evaluation of expert evidence of this nature, indicate variability in report quality.

The study examined 126 expert psychological reports submitted in family court proceedings from 180 court bundles across three  courts located in the UK. Court proceedings took place between 2009 and 2011and covered both adult and child assessments. 

Using four experts (three forensic psychology and one clinical psychology), the study evaluated  the quality of court reports using criteria relating to the stated  qualifications of the psychologists providing expert reports and applying a framework of quality measures drawn from established criteria.

Key findings of the report were:

The reports rated as 'very poor' or 'poor' were characterised by a number of factors including: use of graduate or assistant psychologists to compile case background and in some cases to interview parents, overuse of psychometrics, absence of support for opinion, and making uninformed psychological statements.  

UCLan's Professor Jane L Ireland, Chartered Psychologist, Forensic Psychologist and author of the report, who is based in the School of Psychology, said: 

"The crucial decisions made by family courts on issues such as the custody of children, domestic violence and sexual violence have life changing consequences.

"Although there are some unavoidable limitations in a study of this nature, such as sample size, we were concerned about the limited stated qualifications and current clinical experience of some of the experts commissioned to provide reports. Only one in 10 of those producing court reports appeared to maintain a clinical practice but seem to have become full time professional 'expert' witnesses.

"The under-use of recognised methods to assess risk in cases involving domestic violence, general violence and sexual violence, experts commenting on mental health and yet having no demonstrable background in that area, are significant areas worthy of further research."

The report makes recommendations for sustaining good practice and improving report quality.

These include:

Dr Heather Payne, the Chair of the Experts Committee of the Family Justice Council, commented: 

"The Family Justice Review highlighted the need for more intelligent and selective use of expert evidence in family proceedings and this study is a starting point for moving in this direction.  The Family Justice Council has argued that the cause of much unsatisfactory expert evidence in the family courts is due to poor letters of instruction from the solicitors commissioning the reports - this can lead to the expert being asked to address the wrong questions.  Flawed experts reports are unlikely to mislead the court to the extent that perverse decisions are taken but flawed reports do not assist the court in its decision-making and there is a need for better quality control. The report serves as an excellent signpost for future work, including reflection on how research methods can be refined."