Sunday 11 January 2009


Camilla Cavendish in the ‘Times’ has an article on so-called ’expert witnesses’ who turn out to be anything but, and their continued use and abuse within the family court system.

Despite their continued failings, they remain almost holy figures, unchallengeable no matter what patently obvious crap they spout.

And boy, they can spout some:
This week I spoke to a Welsh woman whose son has been forced to go on seeing his father although both she and his school fear that dramatic changes in his behaviour are the result of abuse. An expert psychologist has dismissed their concerns by stating - astonishingly - that teaching in Welsh could cause retardation in some children. Despite there being no apparent research to back this up, the court served a penal notice that means that the mother will go to jail if she attempts to protect her son from unsupervised visits by her ex-partner, who she believes is an abuser.
Welsh politicians have expressed outrage - Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, said last month that he “would not dignify that person with the title of ‘expert'”. But the decision cannot be challenged, even though the expert has refused to indicate what his conclusions were based on.
Conclusions based on evidence that cannot be examined by another expert for veracity shouldn’t be dignified with the name ‘conclusions’, either…
After overturning Angela Cannings's conviction in 2003, Lord Justice Judge declared that no one should ever go to prison again solely on the basis of expert witness evidence. The criminal law was changed as a result.

But in family courts, many decisions are still made on the basis of evidence from psychiatrists, psychologists or doctors, who often take the view that a mother is unstable, sometimes without cross-examination. Too many family courts are being run by experts, rather than judges.
A second-class court system, in other words. Well, at least they are consistent, given all the other ways in which the family ‘courts’ shouldn’t even be allowed to use the name…
If the courts are not prepared to challenge “expert” evidence, they should surely allow others to do so. In theory, experts are supposed to be independent professionals who have a duty to help the court to come to the right decision. In practice they are often hired guns, paid by local authorities that choose people they know will be a “safe pair of hands” - people they have used time and time again.
Or in other words, people they know will produce the results they want, unhindered by a supine legal system that just takes the money and phones the work in.
It is perhaps not surprising that many experts have an inherent tendency to believe that they are right. That is human nature - although you would expect members of the medical professions to be more conscious of scientific complexity and uncertainty. Courts should be more sceptical. If they will not challenge experts, they must let more parents do so.
Somehow, I can’t help thinking that they will find a way to avoid both those outcomes if they can…

No comments: