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LAA LAA land (or judicially reviewing the legal aid bods and winning)

Ooh, exciting.  I am grateful to M’learned friend Miss Eleanor Battie of counsel for highlighting this case to me.

T, R and Legal Aid Agency 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2013/960.html

Miss Battie has done a very good summary of the case here, on the UK Human Rights blog

http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2013/05/02/laa-must-give-reasons-about-funding-expert-assessments-in-care-proceedings-eleanor-batty/

In essence, you may recall that the Legal Aid Agency (previously the Legal Services Commission, previously the Legal Aid Board) implemented, with the express authority of Parliament, a series of measures aimed at reducing the burgeoning costs of expert assessments.  That was a fairly laudable aim, there could be no doubt that we had reached a point where the demand for expert reports was so exceeding supply that there was almost a housing-style bubble with experts being able to name their fee if you wanted them to do the work.

Unfortunately, and in classic State grasping control of an issue style, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

Almost every case involving an expert became embroiled in a battle of bureaucracy  (I am reminded of A P Herbert’s beautiful expression “I have been engaged in exhaustive, if one-sided correspondence”) where solicitors got the Court to agree the expert assessment that was needed to fight for their client but then it couldn’t happen because the LAA wouldn’t agree to pay for it.

This culminated in the issue coming before the then President of the Family Division, Wall LJ, who found that his request for a representative of the LAA/LSC to attend and clarify things wasn’t complied with, and when he telephoned, was told more or less (and this isn’t really an exaggeration) Oh, we don’t attend court hearings when we’re ordered to, we get so many of those orders, we just ignore them.

But the President reluctantly concluded that the power to order assessments and order that they be paid for (arising from section 38(6), the Family Procedure Rules and the Calderdale case) had evaporated, and it was now the LSC/LAA who had the final say, not the family Court.

This was in A Local Authority v D S and Others 2012 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/1442.html

where the President wove a fairly cunning trap for the LSC, although told them up front that this was a trap, and they should be ready for it, that a careful judicial decision that a report was necessary, coupled with careful analysis of why and why the costs were proportionate, would probably pave the way for a judicial review of an unreasonable refusal.

And so we arrived at a mountain of preambles in every single case involving an expert, just in case anyone was going to judicially review the LSC.

We also, in the interim, had Ryder LJ determine that the LSC had the power to say no to paying the costs of an expert assessment where the Court had decided one was needed but the parents had no funding and no money to pay for it.

So, we arrive now at this case, where once again, the Judge asked the LSC to attend/communicate with her and they declined to do so.

The judgment and order directing the expert assessment was very careful and completely D S and Others compliant, yet the LSC refused the assessment.

In the judicial review, Collins J, who accepts from the outset that he is not a family Judge (and thank heavens for that, given that he actually seemed prepared to put the child first, rather than the LAA’s interest), makes it plain that the LSC /LAA have the power to refuse or partly refuse the costs of an assessment ordered by the Court, but that if they do so, they HAVE to give reasons, and the reasons have to take into account that a Judge who knows the case and all of the issues gave a careful judgment saying that the report was necessary.

 [I'm a bit saddened that Collins J, in an otherwise magnificent judgment, resisted the temptation to say "The LAA have great power, but as Spiderman could tell us, with great power, comes great responsibility".  This is why I will never, ever be made a Judge]

The LAA plead the impossibility of this, saying effectively that they say no so often that they don’t have the resources to give reasons each time.

Collins J rolls up his sleeves, takes firm hold of the baseball bat, and knocks that one clean out of the park.

  1. While there is no statutory requirement for reasons to be given by the defendant, the law has developed to require reasons where fairness so dictates. Cases such as these where children may be removed from parental care involve Article 8 of the ECHR and the welfare of the child which is paramount. There is an obvious requirement that all proper steps are taken to enable a judge to reach an informed decision when dealing with those rights. The parties and the court are in my view clearly entitled to understand why a refusal to allow what the court has considered necessary has been made so that it can, if appropriate, be challenged speedily.
  1. The letter of 19 March 2013 gives no reasons to explain why the full sum put forward is not approved. Since the defendant appeared through its representative, Mr Michael Rimer, at the hearing of S it was clearly aware of the President’s guidance. Guidance in this field from so authorative source as the President, in a reserved judgment after hearing submissions from, amongst others the LSC, gives rise to a public law duty upon the LSC, capable of being enforced, as the President said, by judicial review. Ms Hewson has sought to rely on the real difficulties faced by the defendant in dealing with the increasing number of applications for prior approval. In the S case it had been shown that following the new funding order in October 2011 introduced as part of the legal aid reform programme designed to save costs applications for prior approval of experts increased from 216 in November 2011 to 1855 in April 2012. That increase has, I was told, continued. Ms Hewson said that 4 employees in an office in Wales now had to deal with some 100 applications each week. That I suspect was something of an exaggeration but the point she was seeking to make was that the burden on those responsible for making the decision was such that they did not have the time to enter into any discussion nor to give any substantial reasons. Attempts to save costs in one way can have an effect which increases costs in another. If as a result of the new rules introduced in October 2011 greater pressure is imposed resources must be provided to meet that pressure. In R(H) v Ashworth Hospital Authority [2003] 1 WLR 127 at paragraph 76 Dyson LJ said this:-

“I absolutely reject the submission that reasons which would be inadequate if sufficient resources were available may be treated as adequate simply because sufficient resources are not available. Either the reasons are adequate or they are not and the sufficiency of resources is irrelevant to that question.”

These observations apply a fortiori where there is an absence of reasons when reasons are required.

I have to say, that I am delighted with the outcome, but rather surprised that the facts of this case got it. The expert assessment was for 180 hours, and the LAA originally agreed 130.

Given that their guidance figures for assessments are FAR FAR FAR below that, and the assessment costs as a whole were over £31,000 when the usual cost of an assessment has now come down to under £5,000 , the LAA would have had, I think, a decent case (had they (a) given reasons and (b) you know, bothered to file a skeleton argument in the JR case) for saying that the costs in this case were wildly disproportionate   (those costs are rather more akin to the residential assessment that the LAA suspected this was in disguise)

 

So, if you do get a cost of an expert declined, make sure you get the reasons from the LAA, and remember that scarcity of resources to give good reasons don’t make inadequate reasons adequate…

When to apply for prior authority (and how long the LSC thinks assessments take)

There has finally been some guidance published about this vexed issue. You may recall previous anguished blogs by me about this, most particularly that the last system (“don’t apply for prior authority as it will be refused, and we may arbitrarily slash the number of hours we will pay you for, but you won’t know that until the expert has actually invoiced you”) wasn’t really that workable if you factored in that (a) experts actually wanted to be paid and (b) solicitors actually wanted to get the money to pay them from the LSC, rather than out of their own pocket. Selfish of both of them, I know.

http://www.justice.gov.uk/legal-aid/newslatest-updates/civil-news/prior-authorities-for-experts-in-family-cases?dm_i=4P,18921,AV9ZJ,45QDV,

1 The LSC’s Standard Civil Contract states that there is a contractual right to seek or obtain prior authority only where: • the rate sought exceeds the codified rates introduced in October 2011, or • the item of costs is unusual in its nature or is unusually large. The guidance includes: • examples of factors that may indicate exceptional circumstances apply • benchmarks of ‘unusual’ hours below which prior authority should not be sought • ranges of hours within which prior authority applications have typically been granted for psychologists and psychiatrists, which represent the most commonly used expert types • details of expert witness information required on detailed assessment.

The guidance also confirms that prior authority is not necessary in relation to drug and alcohol tests – provided that the tests carried out reflect what has been directed in a court order. Case-by-case assessments ‘Typical’ hours outlined in the guidance are not caps. They are intended to help providers make case-by-case assessments about when they can submit prior authority applications. Prior authority itself is not a limit on the number of hours that may be carried out by an expert. Additional expert work hours may be justified on assessment, at the end of the case, to the relevant assessing authority. This may be either the LSC or the court

You are probably already spotting the gap in this new guidance. There is no sentence anywhere that suggests that the solicitor will get paid in full by the LSC for any expert report that comes within hourly rates and the benchmark number of hours. So there is still an element of uncertainty and risk. Hoorah.

But at least we now have the secret benchmarking of hours that the LSC claim to have been using. (I strongly suspect that the actual policy was just ‘cut them in half’, but I am a nasty cynical piece of work and that is just my own opinion based on lots of anecdotal observation)

They consider costs of more than £5000 per funded client to be unusual and need prior authority.

The hours above which prior authority should be applied for are:-

 

Pscychologist  (including child psychologist)  20 hours (for one party)  30 hours (for more)

 

Pscyhiatrist (including child psychiatrist)  15 hours (for one party) 25 (for more)

Independent social worker 30 hours (for one party) 40 (for more)

 

Radiologist (10 hours)

  These benchmarks include all aspects of expert service provision and not just the assessment of parties An item of costs is unusual in nature where, for example, more than 2 parties are to be assessed. The number of hours allowed on prior authority is not a cap on the work that may be done, it is authority for an amount of work based on the known relevant facts of a case at a particular time. Providers are always able to seek to justify on assessment/taxation why a greater number of hours were required

Hmmm, interesting. I’m not sure which psychologists they have identified who can read two lever arch files, assess a parent, prepare a report, possibly attend an experts meeting AND Come to Court to give evidence in under 20 hours, to establish that this is a reasonable level. [Given that most experts a year back were estimating 35 hours to WRITE the report, which I know was egregious padding and part of why they’ve been cut off at the knees, 20 hours seems very low.]

I am also a bit puzzled as to why a paediatric report, which is generally about a tenth of the size gets 75% of the hours, and why it takes an ISW 50% longer to assess a parent than a psychologist.

Also I am intrigued as to how radiologists in many of the cases I have blogged about in 2012 could be expected to have done all of the necessary work in 10 hours.

The guidance also clears up once and for all that Independent Social Workers will only get £30 per hour. You may be aware that there was a separate hourly rate of £65 per hour for “risk assessment” and many had simply attempted to switch over to that. You won’t be able to claim for “risk assessment” now in any cases that aren’t sexual abuse. [This is going to be very problematic for the important role of conducting assessments following findings of serious physical abuse, which is a very specialised piece of work and will now be either £30 an hour or farmed out to expensive and less timeous psychologists]

The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Services Commission have published guidance on how expert services identified as specialist risk assessments will be paid. The guidance highlights the factors that may arise in a case which would point to it being appropriate to pay the risk assessment rate.

Factors that may typically point to the expert service being that of a specialist risk assessment expert include where:

a. The court order specifies that a risk assessment is required; and

b. The work to be done is over and above that requiring independent social work expertise, for example where: • There is a substantiated criminal allegation relevant to the case in the immediate background of the case (such as a conviction or pending proceedings for a sex offence); and • A finding of sexual abuse relevant to the case has been made by a court

c.the report is specifically required to address the risk posed as a result of the above factors.

The guidance also clarifies that in considering claims where independent social work services are provided in non-family matters the LSC will have regard to the rates set out in Community Legal Service (Funding) (Amendment No2) Order 2011. Where there is no comparable rate in the funding order – for example for a social worker providing social work services – the LSC will have regard to the comparable rates for independent social work services in family matters introduced in May 2011.

has a point been spectacularly missed? (warning, contains some maths)

 

Or math, if you’re American, in which case “hello, and you really don’t need to read this”

 

The LSC have decided that from 1st October 2012, any application for Prior Authority on experts will be refused (unless it is a request which goes above the codified hourly rates).  They point out, unsurprisingly, that 70-90% of applications for psychologists are within the codified hourly rates and that it is a time-consuming and intensive process to deal with all of these requests.

 

So, we’re left with – if your expert is on or below the codified rate you are okay to instruct them, and can’t seek Prior Authority to make sure your costs will be paid. And if they’re above, well then you can ask if that’s okay (but they’re going to say no, so save your breath for blowing up balloons)

 

I know that even Stephen Hawkins was told before his book “The Brief History of Time” was completed, that every equation in it would cut sales figures in half, so he only included one, and that’s the one that everyone already knows, though they don’t understand it.  But we need a little bit of maths to show why this new procedure might be even worse than the last one.

 

Pre October example   – the parties want to instruct Dr Walter Bishop to undertake a psychological assessment. They get the quote, which is £150 an hour, for 40 hours.  There are four parties (which makes the maths easier, hooray!). The parties apply for prior authority, as each of them as liable for £1,500.  The LSC say “We agree the hourly rate, but want to halve the time, so you can all have £750″.   The parties then have to decide whether to (a) beat Dr Bishop down to 20 hours (b) get him to take less total money (c) pay the difference of £750 out of their own pockets (ha!) or (d) look for another expert.  All very time-consuming and far from child-centred, but what we avoid is Dr Bishop spending money that he won’t get paid for, or putting solicitors on the hook.

 

Post October example – the parties want to instruct Professor Farnsworth, and he says “good news everyone, I’m available.”  He gives a quote of £150 per hour for 40 hours. So each party is responsible for £1500.  But, the publicly funded parties can’t ask the LSC if they are happy with the 40 hours, and any application for prior authority will be refused (so the assessment couldn’t happen at all).  Now, somebody has to take a risk. If the expert produces a final bill of £6,000, the LA can stump up their share of £1,500, but who knows how much money the three publicly funded parties will get. If the LSC run true to form and arbitrarily slash the hours and here’s the nub – after those hours have been incurrred ,  there’s a risk that the expert will be £2,250 out of pocket, or three solicitors will be £750 out of pocket.

 

Without telling solicitors up front, how many hours are acceptable for an assessment  (even if it was  a generic figure for which exceptions could be sought),  there is now a risk that either the expert or the solicitors will be out of pocket.  The risk on the expert is obviously three-fold, since Professor Farnsworth stands to lose three times as much as any individual solicitor.

 

Professor Farnsworth’s horrified reaction to not getting his fee paid.

And there’s no way, any more of knowing up front, whether the LSC will pay for the hours the expert has spent on the case, because you can’t ask for Prior Authority.

A lovely little incidental from this is that for ISWs, who have been badly hosed by the whole codified rate thing, there is now far less risk for the solicitors  (because the hourly rate is so much less, the risk per hour spent that the LSC cut costs less) and instructing a psychologist with the hourly rate around the £150 plus mark becomes terribly risky.  [using the hours above, the ISW would be £30 x 40 hours -£300 each, and if the hours got cut in half, each solicitor would be short of £150, rather than £750]
But if I were an expert wanting to do public law family work, I’d want to know up front, if the LSC aren’t guaranteeing to pay my hours, who bears the risk in the event of shortfall? Because if you think it is me, I’m not going to do work for you, certainly not more than once.  And the solicitors can’t take a £750 hit on profit costs on fixed fee work, because it makes taking the case worse than not having been involved at all.

 

Easy fix, and maybe they intend to do this, or have done so, but tucked it away somewhere and not told us.   (See the Beware of the Leopard post about how public bodies tend to hide the important stuff away)

 

Type of assessment   – hours allowed     – additional hours allowed for each party being assessed

 

Or, but they’ll never do this – the LSC declare that they will honour all expert fees where the Court has approved the hours in the estimate  (the Court obviously being seized of the case and having a proper understanding of the issues, the papers, the complexity and how long it takes to do a proper assessment)

 

Fix please, because otherwise, your solution to the Prior Authority problem has unintentionally paralysed experts and solicitors by fear of capricious hour-slashing and the financial risk of who loses out.

“ISW this a dagger I see before me?”

 

 

(Sorry, there’s not much scope for puns around Independent Social Workers. Most of the humour in ISW work at present is in the LSCs idea that they are worth only ¼ of the fees a psychologist can charge for doing a similar task)

 

 

 

The independent research into the quality and efficacy of Independent Social Work reports is now available. The report was carried out by Dr Julia Brophy.

 

The report can be found here: -

 

http://www.ciswa-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/PDF-FINAL-REPORT-EVALUATION-OF-ISW-ASSESSMENTS-FOR-CARE-PROCEEDINGS-FINAL-18-Apr-2012.pdf

 

The keen-eyed will note that Dr Brophy is a different person to Dr Ireland, who did the same task on psychologists.

 

One might think that it would have been helpful, if you were carrying out research into court experts in two disciplines, to have the same team carry out both assessments, but that would involve introducing common sense into the equation.  (Perhaps we have a third report in the wings on psychiatrists)

 

One might also think that if you were doing research into whether psychological assessments and ISW assessments were useful and fit for purpose that you might look at the outcome of that research before deciding that one group could have their hourly rates cut down to £30 per hour, whilst the other group get hourly rates of £130 per hour.

 

But heck, what’s wrong with Red Queen justice – sentence first, verdict later!

 

 

 

Pink Tape has done a very good article on this report, written by Noel Arnold  (getting in first, whilst I have been busy puppy-wrangling)  :-

 

 

http://pinktape.co.uk/family-justice-review/use-of-independent-social-workers-in-care-proceedings/

 

 

 

I think the report does get some important stuff wrong – deciding that because a Local Authority is a joint party to the instruction of the ISW that means that they are supportive of the instruction is not necessarily right.  Being party to the instruction means that you were told you had to pay for a share of it. Sometimes that will mean the LA were champing at the bit to get an ISW involved, sometimes it will meant that they have bowed to the inevitable that it is better to have a report that won’t be accused of bias and prejudging the outcome, sometimes the ISW can do it quicker than the LA can do in-house and sometimes the LA will protest with varying degrees of success about instruction of another expert and the protest will fall on deaf ears.

 

So, it did slightly trouble me that the report considered that because the LA were involved in the instruction of the ISW in 65% of cases and were the sole instructing party in 15% that there is something to be drawn from that in terms of whether the LA was a driving force behind the assessment.

 

(Which is not to say that all LAs at all times oppose all ISW instructions – rather that sometimes they are the right thing on a case, and sometimes they are not)

 

 

 

 

So, what are the headlines?

 

 

Concern has been expressed that ISWs simply duplicate existing parenting assessments, that they cause delay and that there is a high use by parents seeking ‘second opinion’ evidence based solely on claims under Article 6 under the ECHR. Findings from this study do not support those concerns.

 

It was found that ISW reports mostly provided new evidence not already available to the court. This is already in line with recommendation 3.132 of the FJR.

 

In the absence of changes within cases and purposeful delay, ISW reports were almost always delivered to the date specified in the LOI. There was no evidence that reports delayed scheduled hearings.

 

There was no evidence of high use of ISWs by parents seeking second opinion evidence based solely on Article 6 claims under the ECHR – indeed as a ‘stand- alone’ application in this sample this was rare. Perhaps Article 6 is used in a ‘make weight’ argument but arguably it would be unlikely to succeed unless there were real weaknesses in an existing assessment or clear evidence of bias.

 

Findings indicate that courts would be severely hampered in the absence of access to the body of expertise and the evidence provided by ISWs – not least in case managing to meet the 6 month deadline for care cases recommended in the FJR90 and accepted in the Government’s response to it.91 Any legislative changes and adjustment to the Family Procedure Rules and Guidance would need to reflect an understanding of that finding.

 

Moreover as expert witnesses for the court the evaluation identified that ISWs have ‘added value’. They are able to engage with difficult and disaffected parents where, for whatever reason, relationships with the local authority are frequently at an impasse, where parents and children face a powerful state agency and where certain child welfare questions remain outstanding. While the independence and status afforded by the court process cannot be underestimated, that alone does not explain the ISW’s success in this regard.

 

Alongside considerable skills and experience in assessing vulnerable parents and children within care proceedings, other values follow from the ISW’s role and responsibilities as an expert for the court:

 

Independence (from all parties but with an overriding duty to the court to observe the paramountcy of the best interests of the child)

 Demonstration of ‘balance’ in reporting the outcome of the assessment process and key findings

 Ability to spend sufficient time with parents and engage in reflective practice

 Skills in observation, interpretation and analysis of information

 Clear specification of what is needed from parents and others to demonstrate capacity for change – and what they might have achieved so far

 Use of research in presenting issues and opinions

 Provision of a report which is evidence-based and forensic in method

 Ability to work to instructions posed by parties and by the court and for the most part, answering all the questions posed

 Ability to draw out key hypotheses in a list/hierarchy of questions posed

 Delivery of reports on time

 Provision of skills and expertise tailored to the specific needs of the case (e.g. in assessing parents with a learning disability, where there are allegations of sexual abuse, domestic abuse etc).

 

 There has been something of a misconception in the debate about independent social work practitioners in care proceedings: their work has been portrayed as simply doing what social workers do (i.e. fulfilling the welfare task). That is not correct: whilst they undertake a welfare task providing high quality welfare reports, they also have an additional role. It arises from their duties and responsibilities to the court as an expert witness and permits them to undertake tasks for the court which a social worker – as a professional witness for the local authority – cannot. Moreover the work of the ISW can move cases forward in a way not achievable by local authorities or children’s guardians.

 

 

 

 

Those all seem, at first blush, to be pretty positive conclusions  (so positive in fact that I spent time scouring the report to make sure it wasn’t just a PR-puff commissioned by a group of ISWs to promote their services) ; and not terribly in keeping with the twin attacks of the FJR  (ISWs are just telling us stuff we already know and should be frozen out) and the LSC  (ISWs aren’t as good as psychologists and should be starved out)

 

I think both the LSC and the FJR have fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it will be on the ground to run cases if Independent Social Workers disappeared from the landscape.

 

They are under the impression that they will have cut costs and cut out a tranche of experts and thus reduced delay and saved money. Hurrah!

 

They have fundamentally misunderstood that all they have achieved is greatly increasing the number of parents who will be seeking psychological assessments in care proceedings.  And those assessments already cost more, and take longer.  (I shall remain silent, if not neutral, on whether they are better or worse in quality).   That situation will not improve as the demand for them goes up.

 

If what you want to know, genuinely, is whether a parent has a psychological condition or barrier that is interfering with their ability to parent, and whether that can be overcome, and if so how and in what timescales, you want a psychologist.

 

If what you want to know is, genuinely, has the social work in this case been proper, rigorous and fair, and might there be another way forward in the case than that promoted by the Local Authority, then frankly, you want an Independent Social Worker  (or an old-school Guardian, but that’s an entirely different debate).

 

If what you want to know is, is there a rent-a-mouth expert who will give me something to fight with at a final hearing because I have a hopeless case, then perhaps you should consider moving into Civil law (and probably also getting a time machine back to the 1980s)

 

I hope that BASW and NAGALRO are going to mount the challenge to the LSC about fees that I have heard whispers of, since it seems to me that the different treatment meted out to two groups of professionals who both have degrees and both have professional expertise and experience is capricious and unreasonable.

 

I am encountering cases at present where I cannot get the ISWs I want to do cases, because they won’t get paid £63 per hour, so I will be ending up having psychologists to do the work at £130 per hour.  I am struggling to see the savings here.  I will have a report which is twice as expensive, takes months longer, and is less on point.

 

What we have is a situation akin to the NHS providing free smoking materials to all, and wanting to cut down on costs by deciding that you can’t get free cigarettes any more, but still letting everyone get free cigars.  We will all just smoke the free cigars, I’m afraid.

 

who assesses the assessors?

Always nice to get a little Alan Moore / Juvenal nod into the title if you can.

The Family Justice Council report on the quality of expert psychologists used in care proceedings (as trailed on Channel 4 news) is up .

You can find it at http://www.uclan.ac.uk/news/files/FINALVERSIONFEB2012.pdf

They looked at 126 reports from 3 courts, and used four independent assessors to judge the quality of the reports, both against the guidance of the CPR and a piece of American caselaw (which I have to confess was unfamiliar with me until today) giving guidance on the construction of expert reports and their own views as to the quality of the report. They found, as you may have heard, that :-

 One fifth of instructed psychologists were not deemed qualified on the basis of their submitted Curriculum Vitae, even on the most basic of applied criteria.  Only around one tenth of instructed experts maintained clinical practice external to the provision of expert  witness  work.   Two thirds  of  the  reports reviewed were rated as “poor” or  “very poor”, with one third between good and excellent.

Without wishing to be unkind, my preliminary view is that they’d obviously got  a particularly strong batch. I have found most psychological reports to be a blend of regurgitation of information already found elsewhere, a statement of the bleeding obvious, recommendations plucked from thin air and if you’re particularly lucky a hefty dose of God Complex thrown into the mix.   [I would add, however, that if you get a really good psychological report, it sings, and makes the gulf in quality even more visible. I've got a few psychologists, who are always snowed under and have huge timescales, but always, without fail produce a report that adds something worthwhile to the process. Sadly, their numbers are dwarfed by the people who tell you very little, and take 160 pages to do it]

Here are some of the particular issues that the report considers have been problematic with psychological assessments : -

Research has identified a range of criticisms of psychological reports in general.  These  include occasions where:
Psychological evidence has been presented as scientific fact when in fact it is speculation and conjecture 

There has been an absence of psychological theory;


Evidence has been provided concerning concepts which are not accepted within the field and have not been demonstrated empirically.  At times this has had a negative
impact on the outcomes of proceedings (e.g. with one of the most heavily criticized concepts being that of „recovered memory‟)

There has been a failure to provide evidence which is outside the knowledge of the typical judge or juror  

Psychometric evidence has been submitted as scientific fact when it does not meet the criteria for this (e.g. Daubert criterion).  Rather the evidence  has represented
specialised knowledge at most, with some submitted psychometric evidence based on research and not clinical assessment tools

An over-use of psychometrics, not all of which are applicable to the case being assessed.  Over-use of jargon and speculation, with poor content and style and a
failure to include the data from where inferences are drawn 

The credibility of the source has not been included, with no attempt  made  to evaluate the reliability and validity of the methods used to collect data

Psychological risk assessments have focused on first and second generation approaches (e.g. unstructured clinical and actuarial) as opposed to the more reliable
and valid third generation approaches (structured clinical, with or without actuarial anchoring)

Allegations have been reported as facts

Emotive terms have been applied where these could prejudice a decision

They found that 29% of the reports provided insufficient facts and moved ahead to a conclusion. That 22% had significant missing data but still expressed a conclusion.

To illustrate examples concerning missing data, these are as follows:
- Reports on more than one child which failed to include the data on all children but still cited an opinion on all the children;
- Reports drawing conclusions which have not been mentioned in the report, as noted by one reviewer: “Indicates in conclusion that any individuals assessing this
client should be knowledgeable of Aspergers type characteristics and the impactof this on parenting.  This was never mentioned in the report, or assessed, and
appeared as the last sentence” [rater comment].
- Reports where opinions are presented where data was completely absent, i.e.  “Comments on self-esteem, emotional loneliness, perspective taking, sexual risk,
but include no data” [rater comment].
- Reports where the data is completely missed, “Does not include fact section  –goes straight to opinion” or “cites psychometrics but no scores” [rater comment].17
- Report citing opinion without conducting a formal assessment, “stated that client presented as being of average intelligence without deficits in comprehension or
expression, formal intelligence testing was not undertaken” [rater comment].  
Further examples were:  “he seemed, at times, to be quite a jumpy person with arousal levels higher than an average baseline.  No assessment completed of this”
and “did not assess for personality and yet draws opinion on it”.
- Refers to the opinion of another as their opinion, “Refers to someone else‟s report in response to an instructed question” [rater comment].

Ouch.

They then considered the conclusions against the main body of the report  (a particular bugbear of mine, since if you can’t tell why the conclusions have been reached, how is any professional supposed to explain to their respective client why the expert is with them or against them, and whether they should shift their own position?)
Specific background missing/unclear (1). 34.0 %
Limited opinion (2). 17.0 %
Opinion confused or not clearly explained (3) 17.0 %
No background, just opinion (4) 9.4 %
Some opinions, not linked to factors  (4) 9.4 %
Opinions not substantiated (6) 7.5 %
Questions not answered (7). 3.8 %
No opinion (8). 1.9 %

Okay, the “no opinion” at all has a pretty low score, but that probably still represents from that pool five families who waited for three or four months for a psychologist to help decisions about their future to be made and who got nothing more than an expensive Scooby Doo report  (shrug of shoulders, “I-dunno”)

They found that 60% of the reports had missed the requirements of the CPR for an expert report.

They give some examples of the expert straying into areas reserved for the Judge (I point this out, because in general I agree with the report, but I think the example given here is quite badly flawed and rather weakens some of the other criticisms  –  “I am of the view that these children have all suffered significant harm”   – the ultimate decision on that is of course for the Judge, but there are many, many times when an opinion from the expert as to that is helpful, and generally it is provided as an answer to one of the questions. That, I think highlights the difference between the reports commissioned under the CPR for civil matters and for children matters – the expert is there to help the Court with specialised expertise rather than as a ‘gun for hire’ as happens/happened in civil cases. )

But the report isn’t just a woe-is-me hatchet job, it does go on to make some recommendations. They are worth reading in full, but these are the ones that I considered to be very important

 That instruction of experts should be restricted to those currently engaged in practice which is not solely limited to the provision of court reports.  Only
approximately one tenth of the instructed experts were engaged in practice outside of court work.  This is not in keeping with the expectation of an “expert” as a
senior professional engaged in current practice, suggesting that courts are accessing those whose profession is now solely as an “expert witness”.   There
should be an expectation that  psychologists providing court reports should continue to hold contracts with relevant health, government or educational bodies
(e.g. NHS, Private Health, Prison Service, Local Authority etc) or demonstrate  continued practice within the areas that they are  assessing (e.g. treatment
provision).   This is a means of ensuring they remain up to date in their practice, are engaging in work  other  than assessment, and are receiving supervision for
their wider work as psychologists.  Connected to this, courts should be wary of experts claiming to complete excessive amounts of independent expert work.

 That the instruction is clearly for the expert to conduct all aspects of the work and not graduate psychologists or assistants.  Such individuals are not qualified with
the term „graduate psychologist‟ used to describe those who have completed approximately one third of the required training (e.g. an undergraduate degree in
psychology and nothing more).  There was evidence of their over-use by experts,who were relying on them in some instances to review collateral information and
interview clients.  Courts should only be paying for the expert witness to complete all aspects of the report


Care should be taken with the use of psychometrics and these should not unduly  influence final judgments.   The current research indicated a wide range of such
assessments being used and not all relevant or up to date.  If tests are utilised then experts should be providing  courts with sufficient information to allow them to
judge their quality.  Using the Daubert criteria as a reference for this would assist with the quality of this information (e.g. provision of error rates, evidence of the
theory or method the test was based on), and assist courts to judge how it should be admitted as evidence.

A need for psychologists to provide provisional opinion and alternative opinions.  

The data from which opinions are drawn needs to be clearly indicated to the court.

The use of tested and/or generally accepted psychological theory to support core findings.    Courts are paying for  psychological assessments and this should be
evidenced to distinguish the opinions from those provided by other disciplines

(Hallelujah to that last one.)

The report doesn’t really get into the other side of the coin, which is – are we asking psychologists routinely to assess parents when it is not the right sort of assessment? When I started, psychological assessments were confined to cases where there was some unusual feature or behaviour and the professionals simply couldn’t understand fully and called in a psychologist to advise on that aspect  (I would add that the professionals at that time would have generally been a social worker very skilled and experienced at assessing families rather than a ‘commissioner of assessments’ and an old-school guardian whose role was to dig into the LA work with the family and see if things ought to have been, or could have been, done differently).  Now, a psychological assessment is routinely considered in neglect cases, where common sense tells everyone concerned that the problems are either motivation, lack of comprehension of what is needed to run a family in a non-chaotic way, or exposure as a child to poor parenting and thus no internal models of how to parent.

We go to psychologists when a social work assessment is what is needed. It is one of my main bugbears with both the Family Justice Review and the LSC cost-caps, that the ISW reports which are independent, swift, cost-effective and actually genuinely informative are sneered at and undermined and costs slashed to the point of extinction, whereas the bloated and we see often of varied benefit escape that exercise.

Rant over !

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