30 Apr 2012

Do expert witnesses harm family courts cases?

A special report by Channel 4 News raises more questions about the role and influence of experts used by family courts to decide the fate of children and their families.

An investigation reveals how flawed expert testimony from paediatricians and psychiatrists is having a profound and disturbing effect on some family cases as they move through the system – at its most extreme, ending with children being wrongfully removed from their parents.

Last month we reported on startling new research which raised a number of serious issues about the quality of evidence given by psychologists in family courts. Among the findings was the fact that some 20 per cent of psychologists were not deemed qualified and that some 65 per cent of expert reports were judged to be poor or very poor quality.

At the time, the Family Justice Council – which part-funded the research – said that it didn’t believe that the failings identified would lead to perverse decisions being made by the courts.

It has sparked a huge debate about the role experts play in the family courts – and not just pscyhologists. We have spoken to a number of families where “perverse” decisions have indeed been made on the basis of expert assessments, including one woman, Sharon, who lost her children for years, only to win them back when the expert testimony was deemed to have been disproven.

Sharon’s story

The secrecy of the family courts means we cannot relate precise details of Sharon’s case. But it hinged on experts appointed by the family court.

Struggling with four young children, Sharon turned to social services for help only to find herself in court her threatened with losing her children. Soon after, her worst fears came true as the court ordered the removal of the three boys and hardest of all – the adoption of her youngest child.

Sharon told Channel 4 News of the moment of her farewell meeting with her youngest child. “I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye, I wasn’t allowed to say you know I love you, I miss you…I had to go into the room with my four year old little girl, give her a cuddle just act normal….when I came out of there, Social Services told me that I wouldn’t see her again.

But she never gave up fighting the experts’ opinions of her and in an exceptionally rare case won her daughter back from the brink of adoption and gradually regained contact with the three boys also placed into care by the courts.


The debate around the role and quality of experts on the family courts is welcomed by SOME experts themselves.

Dr Shazad Amin, a consultant psychiatrist and an expert witness for the family courts, told Channel 4 News that there are improvements to be made in the way experts are used and the quality of their work is scrutinised. But he also told us that experts are only one part of a complex process and that their role should not be seen in isolation.

“It is not the role of the expert to decide whether or not the child is removed or sent back to a birth family or is put up for adoption. That decision is solely for the judge,” says Dr Amin. “A whole plethora of information is used by the judge to decide whether or not a child goes back to their parents or is put up for adoption.”

Meanwhile, the Government says that reforming family justice and child protection is a critical priority. It wants to speed-up the process and ensure that it is focused on the needs of children – and it wants to improve the way experts are used as well and is working with others such as the Legal Services Commission, experts groups and local authorities to develop quality standards for them..

But any reform comes too late for Sharon as she tries to rebuild her life with her children. “I was …punished very, very badly,” she told Channel 4 News. “I lost my children for mistakes that the experts felt that I have made during my parenting and I’d like to ask the experts um what’s going to happen to them,” The experts have “absolutely ruined a whole family… and I’d like to know …where’s the justice.”