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Family Justice Council makes recommendations on avoiding conflicts of interest using psychologist expert witnesses in cases of alleged alienation

Interim guidance from the Family Justice Council (FJC), published last month, has highlighted how to avoid conflicts of interest when using psychologist expert witnesses in family court cases involving allegations of alienating behaviours.

The guidance comes after the Association of Clinical Psychologists (ACP) raised concerns that 'psychological experts' without the necessary qualifications and experience are sometimes being instructed to act as expert witnesses in the family court.

The interim FJC guidance encourages the use of expert assessments that draw on a range of different sources and methods (to combat biases inherent in any single approach) in order to inform therapeutic recommendations in the opinion given to the court.

"Recommendations should be consistent with typical current psychological practice and evidence base and flow from a rationale based on recognised assessment methodology. This is a marker of a good quality psychological report," the guidance reads.

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It added that the court should expect a range of options in psychological opinion and recommendations that are:

  • Transparent as to the intervention and requisite qualifications needed to effect desired change.
  • Interpretable by a wide range of practitioners in the field.
  • Deliverable by any suitably qualified practitioners.

The interim guidance said that recommendations for interventions deliverable only by the instructed expert or their associates increases the risk of bias, can limit appropriate oversight of interventions, and risks delays.

"The court should be extremely cautious when asked to consider assessment and treatment packages offered by the same or linked provider," it said.

In December last year, the ACP said it was aware of "several cases" in which unregulated psychological advisors have suggested "inappropriate diagnoses and made recommendations for children to be removed from their mothers based on these diagnoses".

Current guidance from the Family Justice Society and The British Psychological Society is that only Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered practitioner psychologists or those chartered by the British Psychological Society (BPS) should be instructed to assess individuals in the court. However, they are not viewed as equivalent in terms of the expert opinion they can offer.

"This is currently not being followed and non-registered / non-regulated psychologists are undertaking work for which they do not have the necessary qualifications and experience," the ACP claimed.

"This can have devastating consequences, particularly in the family court."

The (HCPC) is the regulator of practitioner, or registered, psychologists. To be registered with the HCPC, a practitioner psychologist has to have a high level of training, supervised practice and undergo continuous professional development.

The BPS is a representative body for psychologists and psychology. Members must provide evidence of particular postgraduate qualifications or training to be awarded 'chartered psychologist status by the BPS.

"However, [psychologists can achieve chartered status] by several routes including teaching of psychology and this does not guarantee that they are suitably trained to provide assessments required to give expert witness evidence to the courts or to deliver psychological interventions," the ACP said.

Only psychologists registered with the HCPC are regulated in the UK; the BPS does not regulate psychologists.

In its report, the ACP recommended that: "In terms of the court, the current guidance needs to be put into practice and monitored."

It also noted that: "For greater protection to the public, ACP-UK recommends that only HCPC registered psychologists should be used as experts, except in relation to very specific academic questions, where a chartered psychologist may be appropriate.

"ACP-UK is aware that there are additional public protection issues outside of the courts, in relation to individuals who are not suitably qualified or regulated providing psychological services to the public. This includes some who have been struck off by the HCPC, and others who have no accredited qualifications beyond a bachelor's degree in psychology."

The ACP also called for legislation to protect the term 'psychologist' and restrict this to use by practitioner psychologists regulated by the HCPC.

Adam Carey

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