08/23/2023 - UK: Stricter Guidelines for Unregulated Psychologists in Legal Cases

New guidelines have been introduced to establish stricter regulations regarding the utilization of unregulated psychologists as expert witnesses in legal proceedings. The primary objective is to ensure that only professionals with sufficient training and qualifications participate in trials.

In accordance with the updated guidelines, family judges who choose to appoint unregulated psychologists as expert witnesses in court cases are now required to provide a comprehensive explanation for their decision. This measure is designed to safeguard the public from potential harm caused by inadequately trained professionals.

Moreover, the revised joint guidelines, developed collaboratively by the Family Justice Council and the British Psychological Society (BPS), also clarify the distinction between a psychologist who is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), the regulatory body, and an academic psychologist who may not possess the same level of clinical competence.

Dr. Jaime Craig, a consultant clinical psychologist and the lead author of this publication, emphasized the need to enhance the existing guidelines to clearly differentiate between psychologists with practical qualifications and those primarily involved in research and academia.

The guidance explicitly states that only psychologists regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) possess the necessary clinical expertise to conduct psychological assessments, provide diagnoses, and recommend treatment. For academic psychologists, it is essential to hold chartered membership with the British Psychological Society (BPS).

Dr. Craig pointed out that within the National Health Service (NHS), individuals seeking psychological services encounter practitioners, not researchers. While many psychologists are engaged in valuable research, they may not have the qualifications required for assessments, diagnoses, or treatment.

Dr. Craig expressed concern about a disparity in the family courts compared to medical evidence. In the medical field, it is expected that experts are registered with the General Medical Council, leaving no room for exceptions. However, within the realm of psychological evidence, there exists a loophole that enables the courts to involve inadequately qualified individuals in assessing children, a practice not permissible in the NHS.

He further noted that the requirement for judges to justify their choice of an individual not registered with the HCPC is intended to prompt a thorough examination of their qualifications. The updated guidance's primary objective is to safeguard the public from individuals lacking the necessary competence.

This revised guidance stems from a significant legal decision earlier in the year, in which England's senior family court judge highlighted the confusing nature of the current system, where the generic label "psychologist" lacks protection and can be applied by virtually anyone.

n the case referred to as "Re C," Sir Andrew McFarlane provided a detailed explanation for his decision to reject the appeal made by a mother who sought a re-hearing of her case. The basis of her appeal was her dissatisfaction with the jointly appointed "parental alienation" expert, who, in her view, lacked the necessary regulation and qualifications.

It's important to note that McFarlane did not criticize the competence of the expert in question. However, he did address a broader ongoing debate concerning the engagement of non-regulated psychologists in recent years. He underscored the importance of introducing rigor and clarity when selecting expert psychologists for court cases. Nevertheless, he also indicated that the establishment of a more stringent regulatory framework should be determined by the psychological profession and, ultimately, by parliament.

Members of parliament have called for an inquiry into the use of experts within family courts. However, government ministers have countered by asserting that the responsibility lies with the judiciary to reject experts they deem inadequately qualified.

Dr. Adrienne Barnett, a non-practicing barrister and a law lecturer at Brunel University, emphasized the significant role that psychological experts play in offering assessments and diagnoses that can profoundly impact court outcomes. These assessments may determine critical aspects, such as which parent a child should reside with and the extent of contact they should have with each parent, if any.

One individual, referred to as Helena (name changed for anonymity), experienced the removal of her children from her care after an unregulated court-appointed psychologist suggested that she had "alienated" her children from their father. Helena, who is currently prohibited by the courts from contacting her children, expressed the need for long-awaited guidance in this area. She noted that, despite the positive step taken with the guidance, it ultimately remains at the discretion of judges to choose an expert who is not subject to regulation.

Helena further emphasized the critical importance of scrutinizing the diagnoses made in such cases. In her situation, an unregulated expert made significant diagnoses regarding her children, despite there being no prior concerns. These diagnoses were based on only a few brief meetings, and their impact on her life was profoundly destructive, comparable to the care one might expect for someone with severe mental health challenges.

Please note that some names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved.