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Multidisciplinary teams - a response to publicity about the quality of expert psychologists’ reports for family courts

Call for further consideration of the benefits of multi-disciplinary teams in the family courts.

In the light of the enormous publicity which followed the publication of Professor Ireland's report evaluating expert witness psychological reports, Dr Julie Doughty and Jason Tucker, Law School, Cardiff University call for the benefits of multi-disciplinary teams to be given further consideration.

"A summary report, 'Evaluation of Expert Witness Psychological Reports: Exploring Quality' by Professor Jane L Ireland and colleagues at the University of Central Lancaster, published in February 2102, has raised public concerns about the extent to which family courts are relying on reports by independent expert witness in psychology when making decisions about removing children from their parents in care proceedings. The report has been featured in the press, radio and television, with dramatic headlines such as 'Why do our family courts rely on hired gun experts'?

The concerns stem from these findings in Professor Ireland's report:

1. One fifth of experts in the sample were 'not qualified to provide a psychological opinion'.

2. Few experts in the sample maintained clinical practice at the time writing court reports.

3. There was an over reliance on psychometrics; obsolete styles of assessment and invalid assessment tools.

4. There was little use of recognised methods to assess risk.

5. A proportion of experts commented on parties' mental health despite having no indicated knowledge of this area of clinical expertise.

The authors called for more research to be undertaken on these issues so that work can be undertaken into the quality of reports commissioned by the courts in this sensitive area of family law. They do not mention that there is already some research on a particular aspect of expert evidence, namely multidisciplinary teams.

To a large extent, the issues raised by Professor Ireland's report could be addressed by the courts being able to commission reports from multidisciplinary teams of experts which provide expert witness services alongside their clinical practice.  

In June 2011, a team from Cardiff Law School (Jason Tucker, Richard Moorhead and Julie Doughty) published an Evaluation of the Legal Services Commission pilot on Alternative Commissioning of Expert Witnesses. This pilot enabled multi-disciplinary teams of expert witnesses to offer a service to the family courts in care proceedings. All the teams that undertook pilot cases included psychologists. Other specialisms included in teams were psychiatry; therapy; paediatrics and social work.

The ACE model followed the recommendations in the Chief Medical Officer's  'Bearing Good Witness' report in 2006, that multidisciplinary teams would enable the parties and the court to have the benefit of access to expert witness reports that were balanced, quality assured and less likely to lead to complaints. Furthermore, this model would allow new expert witnesses to be trained and mentored in a supportive environment. The evaluation report by Cardiff Law School demonstrates that the ACE model has the potential to address all five points above, made in Professor Ireland's report. This is because the multidisciplinary teams which undertook pilot cases were based in NHS clinical practice where psychologists (and all other members of the team) are subject to clinical supervision within their own discipline. A major benefit is that they are also in a position to consult with each other about individual cases and reports, provide peer review and support, and identify and meet training needs. In this way, teams operate quality assurance systems that ensure that report authors are appropriately qualified and using the correct up-to-date diagnostic tools.

Reports themselves were not examined in the ACE evaluation, and we make no comment on Professor Ireland's findings. However our interviews with practitioners and judges found that that the teams were highly regarded and that parents and children had benefitted from their assessments. The quality assurance provided through mutual support, the capacity of teams to identify the need for additional assessments (and also to resource those assessments) and the ability of the teams to make informed recommendations about care planning specific to local resources were all highly valued. However, the evaluation also found that the pilot was limited by being confined to a small number of very complex cases and that the future viability of such teams would require increased commitment by NHS trusts in recognition of their obligations under Children Act 2004 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

The Family Justice Review final report noted of the evaluation that 'the potential of multidisciplinary teams seems clear, and indeed they already operate in some areas with success'. [para 3.151] The Review concluded that a further pilot of multi-disciplinary teams should be undertaken, building on lessons learned from the original pilot.

We therefore hope that future research into the quality of expert witness reports will pay regard to the potential value of multidisciplinary teams."