When it is decided that it is ‘necessary’ – and that is the first question to be decided by the Court (Practice Direction 25 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010) – this should be as early as possible within the start of proceedings.
Psychologists are most likely to be the favoured expert because they have expertise and knowledge outside that of the Judge, the Social workers and the Guardian. Official Guidance has been prepared by the British Psychological Society in conjunction with the Family Justice Council
This is a useful guidance because it outlines the role psychologists can play and the range of issues they provide evidence on which includes assessments of mental health or addiction, to assessing the psychological impact of disability.
These reports are always useful in conjunction with parenting assessments to provide details of support a vulnerable parent may need in order to care for a child, and useful to assist where a child has special needs or a medical condition which needs to be supported.
It is always helpful to ask within instructions for details of programmes or therapy which may be offered to a parent and an assessment of possible success.
There are a number of steps which need to be taken:
Identifying which expert is required. If the parent has already been identified with a mental health difficulty and this has been diagnosed (such as Bipolar or Schizophrenia) then they are likely to be already under the care of a treating team, and it is possible that they may be able to provide future prognosis, risk of relapse etc., and as such should be in a position to answer questions of this nature. It is worth noting, however, that an adult’s treating team providing updates do not have an overriding duty to the Court that other experts have. If the indications are that a formal diagnosis and/or information on medication and its effectiveness is required then the most appropriate expert is likely to be a psychiatrist. This does not limit the need for a psychological assessment as the psychiatrist may form the view that psychological input is required as this will be able to provide a comprehensive knowledge of psychological treatments and therapies.
The next step is to identify the most appropriate expert. Psychologists have their own areas of expertise and this is a vital component of choosing the right expert to ensure you have someone with the right qualifications – and perhaps more vital experience in the field that you require as a specialism. Here the use of the Guidance is invaluable as it provides a detailed description which includes areas of expertise and the career pathways of the listed psychologists.
What is helpful in making this choice is considering the key questions that you require answers to, being careful to ensure that they have appropriate experience in the area that you are most concerned about. For example, this may be around domestic abuse (perpetrator or victim) and in identifying the expert’s qualifications and experience will make a significant difference to the quality and essentially the value of the report.
When seeking for an appropriate expert, unfortunately within most cases there is always a time constraint component. I would urge getting the right expert is crucial and should be the first consideration. Again, the Guidance (at appendix 5) provides a helpful checklist for solicitors to consider, which includes initially seeking the psychologist’s views on the DLOI. Having this sort of preliminary dialogue can ensure they have a clear idea of what is required and one will also have a clear idea of what they are actually able to do.
By taking this initial step it would be hoped to avoid potential difficulties and avoid some of the difficulties which have been identified with poor reports such as:
(i) Report prepared by an unqualified psychologist, or one carrying out an assessment which is outside their expertise
(ii) Failure to answer properly the questions within the letter of instructions
(iii) Reports whereby the opinions given are unsupported by either appropriate evidence or analysis
(iv) Reports which stray outside the expert’s remit, such as commenting on issues which are for the Court to decide
(v) Reports which state unproven allegations as facts
If the steps outlined above are taken, then one should expect a report written by an appropriately qualified expert and it should be both balanced and well- reasoned.
If problems are identified, and they should be done so at an early stage by either those commissioning the report or the other parties, then there is the option (which the Court may sanction) of allowing further questions to be put. Although it should not be necessary if all parties have had the option of seeing the DLOI in advance and thereby having the option of seeking additional questions at the outset.
Last but not least…..cross examining an expert is not easy as naturally they will (or should) know more about their area of expertise. But the British Psychological Society has produced some guidance ( https://www.bps.org/our-members/standards-and-guidelines ) which will assist.
This guidance includes (at appendix 4) guidelines for timescales for differing types of assessments, and this is always useful in ensuring that the right amount of time has been spent with the person being assessed. It also contains a code of practice in relation to psychometric testing – much of which is not in the public domain for obvious reasons – but may be helpful if the Court would be assisted by reliance on one particular test. Access to this testing may, or undoubtedly will, require some negotiations between the psychologist and the Court, and a restriction on disclosure.
For a report to have value it is imperative that the right expert is instructed. The right expertise in the required area is essential and this should take priority over a restricted timescale.