UK Politics

Family courts: New standards for expert witnesses

Newborn baby
Image caption Life-changing decisions about families are made in the courts

Fewer decisions about the care of children will be made on the advice of poorly qualified experts in the family courts under government plans.

Minimum standards will be introduced later this year to weed out incompetent psychologists and other experts, the justice department said.

The courts will also be told to use fewer experts to save time and money.

The system has so far escaped scrutiny due to the secrecy surrounding family courts, critics say.

Lib Dem MP John Hemming, who campaigns for family law reform, said he "welcomed" the move.

He described the current lack of oversight of experts who were often responsible for life-changing decisions as an "absolute scandal".

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, the Birmingham Yardley MP claimed some psychologists provided contradictory opinions depending on who was paying for their services or reached a verdict on whether someone was a fit parent without interviewing them.

"The idea that psychologists can come to conclusions about people and their merits as parents without even seeing them is an absurdity," he told MPs.

Time delays

Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly, responding for the government, said minimum standards would be introduced as part of wider reform of the family court system aimed at improving fairness and efficiency, including greater use of mediation.

"Expert evidence will continue to be important in some cases to ensure a fair and complete process," the justice minister told MPs, but he said the government was "working to ensure it is of high quality and that it is delivered promptly".

"The main elements will be to raise the threshold for a court to permit an expert to be instructed, where expert witness evidence must be necessary rather than reasonably required."

He said family courts had to be more conscious about the cost and time delays and urged them to "exercise better control on the questions put to the expert".

He added: "We recognise also that minimum standards are necessary for expert witnesses in the family courts and so we are working with the department of health, health regulators and the family justice council to establish minimum standards that judges should expect from all expert witnesses."

'Serious issues'

Experts can play a crucial role in family court cases, often commenting on whether parents have the ability to care for their children or have treatable psychological problems.

Image caption Lib Dem MP John Hemming is campaigning to end secrecy in family courts

But a report last November by the Family Justice Review said there were "serious issues" with the quality of some psychological reports and the courts' reliance on them was causing "unacceptable" delays and harming the welfare of children.

Some 20% of psychologists used as experts were not deemed qualified, the review found, and 65% of expert reports were judged to be of poor or very poor quality.

The planned new rules on expert witnesses were welcomed by the British Psychological Society, which said it was important that "decisions reached by family courts are based on the best possible quality evidence".

"The BPS would be very pleased to engage with the Department of Justice to review the role of expert witnesses in this context and develop improved codes of practice and guidelines," said a spokesman.

The justice department is also working on plans to improve the transparency of the family court system, Mr Djanogly told MPs in Westminster Hall.

Jack Straw, justice secretary under the previous Labour government, relaxed restrictions on family court hearings to allow reporters to cover proceedings provided they did not name those involved.

But the next stage of the reform process, which would have allowed coverage of adoption hearings among other things, has been shelved by the coalition government after MPs found the legislation was drafted in a way that would increase, rather than reduce, secrecy.

Vitamin D deficiency

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The government believes that there is a need for greater transparency in the operation of the courts.

"But family proceedings involve parties who have a right to privacy, such as vulnerable children.

"We will look at the issue of media and public access to the family courts, and the release of information from them, afresh taking into account the findings of the recently published final report of the Family Courts Information Pilot.

"We will ensure that the interests of the children involved are at the heart of any new policies."

In Thursday's Westminster Hall debate, John Hemming also raised the case of a four month old baby, Jayden Wray, whose parents were accused of shaking to death.

Chana Al-Alas,19, and Rohan Wray, 22, were acquitted after the jury learned that his fractures, supposedly telltale signs of abuse, could have been caused by his severe rickets due to Vitamin D deficiency.

Mr Hemming told MPs he knew of eight similar cases and was campaigning for the government to review the verdicts.

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