WALES/ENGLAND – Family expert attacks judiciary on reforms

Social workers and CAFCASS can’t replace experts in courts, says head of professional group

A leading family expert has attacked Lord Justice Ryder’s reforms to witness evidence in the family courts, which would see a greater role for social workers and CAFCASS officers. 

“Now I have nothing against the role of social workers, I wish that social workers were able to do the work better,” said Dr Judith Freedman, head of the Consortium of Expert Witnesses to the Family Courts.

But social workers, she said, are not trained to provide mental health assessments, “much less medical assessments”.

Dr Freedman attacked president of the family division Sir James Munby’s report on the reforms, where he said he believes that social workers and guardians are the new experts. 

Speaking this morning at the Westminster Legal Policy Forum on family reform, Dr Freedman berated the judiciary on its suggestion that social workers and CAFCASS officers can be used instead of experts in court. Dr Freeman’s comments followed that of Anthony Douglas, chair of CAFCASS.

“I just hope that when the president, Lord Justice Ryder and Mr Douglas go to hospital to have an operation, they can look forward to being operated on by social workers,” said Dr Freedman.

Dr Freedman, a consultant psychiatrist at Portland Clinic, said that her organisation, which has 600 members, was left confused by the messages promulgated by the judiciary in recent months.

When Lord Justice Ryder announced his reforms a year ago, he asserted that expert reports take too much time, must be necessary, are too long and are short on analysis, she said.

“He also said that expert use in private law cases remained unaddressed. It remains unaddressed made worse by Lord Justice Ryder’s judgment in favour of the Legal Aid Agency not to fund expert reports when there are parties who cannot pay their share of the bill.”

Changes to the test applied to experts in family courts in February mean that evidence must be “necessary”. Previously, evidence from experts including psychologists and doctors was permitted if it was “reasonably required”.

“Sir James Munby said that not only do they [experts] need to be necessary, but there now need to be three grounds on which they are necessary. This has led some parts of the country…to request for all expert instructions to be turned down.”

“How can we go from expert witnesses are important to we need none at all?”

In May the MoJ said the quality of experts in family courts must improve and announced the  launch of consultation into expert quality standards.

“Poor quality expert evidence can lead to unacceptable delays for children and their families,” justice minister Lord McNally said at the time.


SOURCE: Solicitors Journal

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