05/21/2024 - UK: Psychologists as Expert Witnesses

The following article discusses psychologists as expert witnesses in the UK adversarial system.

What titles can Psychologists use?
In July 2009, the Health Professions Council was granted statutory responsibility for the registration of professional applied psychologists. Since August 2012, only psychologists registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) can use titles protected by the HCPC. These titles include:
• Clinical Psychologist
• Counselling Psychologist
• Educational Psychologist
• Forensic Psychologist
• Health Psychologist
• Occupational Psychologist
• Sports and Exercise Psychologist
• Registered Psychologist
• Practitioner Psychologist
The title ‘Chartered Psychologist’ signifies a grade of membership within the British Psychological Society (BPS), authorized by its Royal Charter. This title is legally restricted and granted only to psychologists who have achieved and maintained the necessary professional qualifications and experience, which are vetted by the Society.
To register with the HCPC or to attain Chartered Membership with the BPS, a psychologist must:
• Possess appropriate qualifications and experience,
• Be actively practicing according to current professional standards,
• Complete the necessary Continuous Professional Development (CPD).
However, individuals are not required to register with the Health Professions Council unless they intend to use one of the protected titles. Similarly, membership in the British Psychological Society is not necessary unless one wishes to use the title "Chartered Psychologist."
Moreover, neither the HCPC nor the BPS has the authority to protect the basic title ‘psychologist’. Consequently, anyone can use the title ‘psychologist’ regardless of their qualifications. This can lead to public confusion, as well as misunderstandings within other professions and the legal system. However, as long as individuals do not violate laws related to misrepresentation, deception, or fraud, they can legally use the title. Professional applied psychologists in the United Kingdom are not required to register with the HCPC or become members of the BPS. Therefore, a psychologist registered with the HCPC or a Chartered member of the BPS is certainly qualified and in practice. Yet, a psychologist can also be fully qualified and in practice without HCPC registration or BPS Chartered membership.

Registration or Chartered membership does not qualify a psychologist as an expert witness, nor does the absence of such credentials disqualify them from serving as an expert witness.
As a result of current legislation, both qualified and unqualified individuals can legally call themselves any type of psychologist, provided they do not use protected titles. Therefore, titles such as:
• Business Psychologist
• Child Psychologist
• Consultant Psychologist
• Criminal Psychologist
• Expert Psychologist
• Graduate Psychologist
• Neuropsychologist
• Organisational Psychologist
are used by both fully qualified psychologists and, sometimes, by individuals with no qualifications in psychology at all.

‘Current Practice’ in Relation to Psychologists as Expert Witnesses

Professor Ireland proposed that psychologists who provide court reports should ideally maintain contracts with relevant health, government, or educational bodies (such as the NHS, Private Health, Prison Service, Local Authority, etc.) or demonstrate ongoing practice in the areas they are assessing, such as treatment provision.
Currently, a significant and increasing number of fully qualified psychologists, including those offering expert witness services, are self-employed or work for commercial, not-for-profit, or charitable organizations. This trend is expected to grow due to ongoing public sector reforms and financial constraints.

Additionally, psychologists employed in public sector organizations face mounting pressure to deliver core services more efficiently. Public sector employment contracts may also restrict non-core activities, such as expert witness work, resulting in limited opportunities for such roles. Pilot projects aiming to establish expert witness services within the NHS have not successfully addressed perceived shortages, possibly for these reasons. Moreover, recent Ministry of Justice restrictions on fees for expert witness services might render it financially impractical for public sector bodies to allocate staff for these services, especially considering overhead costs.
Therefore, the idea that psychologists providing court reports should be employed by relevant health, government, or educational bodies may seem practical but overlooks the current realities of professional practice in public services. It also disregards the diverse and valid professional activities of applied psychologists in the commercial, not-for-profit, and charitable sectors.

Professor Ireland's suggestion that psychologists should demonstrate continued practice in the areas they are assessing (e.g., treatment provision) to be considered experts is misleading. This notion appears to draw an inappropriate parallel between psychologists and medical doctors. It is both appropriate and long-standing good clinical practice for psychologists to apply their expertise in assessment, diagnosis, and prescription independently of therapeutic practice. Many applied psychologists, both within and outside the NHS, are not therapists; they provide assessments, advice, supervision, and consultancy. Thus, the distinction between legitimate expert clinicians and those who cannot be experts because they only provide assessments for court advice is a false one.
The issue of ‘current practice’ should be evaluated by considering:
• Continuity of relevant professional practice (whether employed, self-employed, or voluntary) in preceding years;
• An appropriate level of experience in the required area, evidenced by indicators such as Continuing Professional Development (CPD), relevant training updates, skill development, teaching, professional and committee activity, or publications in peer-reviewed journals.
As with all expert witnesses, the specific nature of current practice required for a psychologist acting as an expert witness will depend on the expertise needed to advise the court on the particular case.