MPs, lawyers and charity leaders are among those calling for an urgent inquiry into the use of unregulated psychological experts in the family courts, after an investigation by the observer.
In a letter sent to the justice secretary, the victims’ commissioner for London, Claire Waxman, and a group of MPs write: “We believe there is ample evidence that children and survivors of domestic abuse are being put at risk by the evidence provided by unregulated experts who do not belong to any professional body and therefore cannot be held to account.”
It comes after the observer reported warnings from the Association of Clinical Psychologists that experts who are not regulated have “suggested inappropriate diagnoses and made recommendations for children to be removed from their mothers based on these diagnoses”.
The letter to Dominic Raab raises concerns about the instruction of unregulated experts in cases where there are allegations of “parental alienation” – meaning a child has rejected one parent for no reason other than they have been psychologically manipulated by the other parent. After “alienation” is found, the child can be removed from that parent immediately and all contact cut.
Five MPs signed the letter, including the shadow minister for victims and youth justice, Anna McMorrin, and the shadow minister for domestic violence, Jess Phillips. The Tory MPs Caroline Nokes and Robert Halfon and the Labor MP Sarah Champion also signed.
They highlight concerns that allegations of parental alienation are being used to counter claims of domestic abuse and that children’s genuine fears of abuse can be “subverted by experts and used as evidence of alienation”. They write: “This in turn means judges are making child contact and residence arrangements based on unsound advice.”
The letter calls on the Ministry of Justice, in partnership with the Family Division of the high court, to commit to “an urgent inquiry into the use of parental alienation experts in the family court”.
The Tory peer Arminka Helic has written separately to the justice secretary with her concerns.
Halfon, who is chair of the education committee, told the observer: “As the MP for Harlow, I’ve seen some thoroughly tragic cases of domestic abuse but it always seems to me that the family court is weighted against the victim, rather than the perpetrator. There is one hurdle after another that the victim must jump over in terms of parental custody and access. Anything that can be done to ensure the court system presents a fair and real chance to limit parental access by abusers is welcome.”
Backing the calls are 85 academics, lawyers, charity leaders and health workers who have signed a third letter to Raab. They warn: “There are clear dangers to the public who may unwittingly hire an unregulated expert witness and therefore have no legal redress should harm occur.”
Natalie Page from the Survivor Family Network is among those to have signed the letter, along with people from organizations including the Center for Women’s Justice, the Feminist Law Society, Rape Crisis England and Wales, Refuge, Brunel University, the University of Suffolk, Equality Now and the Safe Schools Alliance.
Page said: “This crisis can only be resolved by a full and frank inquiry into the use of psychological experts in the family court. The stakes for victims of abuse couldn’t be higher.”
Joint guidelines by the Family Justice Council and the British Psychological Society (BPS) state the courts should “expect that all psychologists based in the UK providing evidence in the family proceedings are regulated by the Health and Care Professionals Council and/or … have chartered membership with the BPS”. However, within the legal framework, judges are able to appoint unregulated experts at their discretion.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed it had received the letters and would respond in due course, saying: “The justice system would thoroughly investigate any reports of false evidence and courts have recently issued guidance on what type of expert evidence should be authorized.”
In October 2021, the president of the Family Division published a memo on court-appointed experts, which explains the principles applied by the family court in England and Wales when it considers whether to authorize or admit expert evidence.
A spokesperson for the judiciary said: “The welfare of the child is paramount and remains at the heart of family court proceedings.”