One fifth of the psychological expert witnesses instructed to give evidence in family cases are “inadequately qualified”, a report by the University of Central Lancashire has found.
The report, by Professor Jane Ireland, which examined 126 psychological reports from 180 court bundles, rated two thirds of the reports as “below the expected standard”.
It found that 90 per cent of instructed experts maintained no clinical practice outside the provision of expert witness reports and in one court all the reports were generated by witness companies.
Ireland said the research was the first into the quality of expert reports in this area. Her report recommended that only experts who were actively engaged in non-legal practice should be instructed.
It called on judges to be more thorough in assessing the competence of experts and said expert witness commissioning companies should not be relied on as a “marker of potential good-quality reports”.
Ireland said that although there were some “unavoidable limitations” in the study, such as sample size, she was concerned about the limited qualifications and clinical experience.
“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.”
Dr Heather Payne, chair of the experts committee of the Family Justice Council, which partly funded the report, said: “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.”