In a rather amazing u-turn, I read today in The Times that the government finally accepts the need to reform the use of expert witnesses in care proceedings. In a previous blog (http://www.blanchardslaw.co.uk/blog/children-and-the-family-court-is-it-time-to-open-up-the-system-to-public-scrutiny), I wrote about inexpert “Expert Witnesses”, and their role in usurping the function of the court in family proceedings, in effect making the decision for the judge as to whether or not a child should be removed from his or her parent. I also discussed whether these experts ought to continue to have their identity protected, as with parents and the children who are involved in these cases. My article was prompted by the report of Professor Jane Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire, who found shocking data about the calibre of these people providing very weighty (and often expensive) opinions for the court. In this government-commissioned study, Professor Ireland said that 65% of the reports were poor or very poor, 20% of experts were not qualified for the task, a further 20% were writing outside their area of expertise, and only one in ten were practising in the area in which they were reporting. There can be no more serious a consequence for a family than to have a child taken away, and yet the courts are reliant upon advice from an unregulated and private workforce, where apparently, anyone can set themselves up an an expert witness. Although many of those have jobs within the NHS, that agency does not see it as within its remit to exercise any quality control.
I have been contacted by Professor Ireland, who told me about the “rather interesting campaign” which has developed against her, which has seen her reporting twelve psychologists to the police for harassment. The Early Day Motion of 19 April 2012 sponsored by MPs John Hemmings and Mike Hancock, cited the government’s complacent attitude to its own report, which had argued that the survey was not representative, being limited to three courts.
Today The Times reports a shift in that the government now accepts, as of last night, the “need to reform the use of expert witness evidence” and “we are working with representative bodies to improve the quality of expert witness reports while also legislating to reduce the unnecessary use of expert witnesses in care proceedings.” This last quote is completely in keeping with the government’s policy to date, which has been to limit the fees charged for the reports.
A new Consortium of Expert Witnesses to the Family Courts has been set up to inform us of the views of professionals, and is already espousing self-regulation, which, some might say, is precisely why we are in this current situation.
It is clear that the govenment needs to act to deal with this very worrying problem. The first step is strict regulation. A second step would be to open up our secret family court to enable the experts to be identified and held to account, whilst continuing to anonymise those families who do not wish to speak out.
©Punam Denley, May 2012