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Family Law: expert witness reform needed

It has been claimed that the safety of some of the country’s most vulnerable children is being put at risk by the expert witnesses that have ‘sprung’ up in the family courts.

There are now calls for the NHS and the courts to take a greater responsibility for checking the validity of the work and the credentials of the experts that give evidence in family matters such as child abuse, child neglect, cot death cases and shaken baby syndrome cases.

These calls come less than a month after it emerged a couple were wrongly accused of murdering their own child by causing non-accidental injuries through shaken baby syndrome, and then suffered the trauma of having their second baby removed into care after birth. The parents were cleared after an acrimonious court battle where medical experts could not agree on why the child had died. The likely cause of the child’s injuries was due to the condition rickets, causing vitamin D deficiency which weakens the bones and not child abuse.

Expert witness are currently employed by local authorities seeking to take a child into care through care proceedings, birth families trying to prevent the local authorities actions, or by the children’s appointed court-appointed guardians.

This area of law is highly sensitive yet there is little regulation. There are virtually no quality controls in place and standards within this area are variable.

A government commissioned report has revealed that often expert witnesses work was second rate. Jane Ireland, a forensic psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire was given access to expert witness evidence from three courts. She found that 20% of reports were written by people not qualified for the task; a further 20% of the reports  were by people writing outside their areas of knowledge and qualification; 65% of the reports were ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’; and only 1 in 10 experts were practising in the area on which they were giving evidence.

One side of the argument is for expert witness to be employed by the courts, suggesting that this would be in the best interest for everyone as it would avoid ‘battles’ amongst ‘experts’ as they try to outgun one another. However, the Consortium of Expert Witnesses to Family Courts believes that self-regulation is the way forward.

Here at Swain & Co the family law expert team of solicitors support the call for reform on expert witnesses. The statistics are shocking when childcare proceeding cases rely so heavily on evidence that the expert witnesses provide.

Self-regulation is not objective enough for the industry that is highly relied upon in this manner. We are talking about vulnerable children at the centre of this family law matter.

Swain & Co. support the precedent set by The Family Drug and Alcohol Court in London, which specialises in childcare proceeding where parents have drink and drug problems, which has a small team of experts that all parties have to use. This system has been highly praised as it cuts time it takes to hear cases and the families who use the Court mostly believe that they have been treated fairly during the process.

Swain & Co are also specialists in health law and clinical negligence cases. We have vast experience of identifying and instructing medical experts. Our knowledge of medical issues means that we are best equipped to understand complex medical issues and to question opinions when necessary.

We frequently obtain reports from paediatricians, radiologists, neurologists, orthopaedic experts and many more. That way allegations of child abuse can be fully investigated and challenged when appropriate.

Our specialist team of family solicitors deal with all areas of family law including child care and child protection proceedings. So if you face the threat of, or have had, your child taken away by social services, contact our team on 02392 492967. Legal aid may be available to you, and we offer a free initial consultation, so don’t hesitate to call.

Please do not forget that we also handle the sensitive cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse, so please call or text our 24 hour emergency line on 07435 969798 – we are here to help you.

Source: The Times, 01.05.12

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