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Psychological Assessments


Where there are concerns raised in court about a parent´s mental health, the court may direct that the parent undergoes a psychological assessment. This usually requires the parent´s consent, unless there is real reason to suspect they may be at risk of harming themselves or another person. The decision as to whether to order psychological assessment is made at a judge´s individual discretion. Commonly, the parties (or their solicitors if represented) are asked to jointly instruct a Psychologist or other mental health professional.

If an assessment is directed by the court, we would recommend that the professional instructed to carry out the assessment is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), either as a Clinical or Counselling Psychologist. Clinical and Counselling Psychologists routinely work with adult and child mental health (if that is their chosen field) - carrying out assessment, diagnosis and therapy.

Important Notes

New guidance has been produced for psychologists who act as expert witnesses. That guidance can be downloaded via the link below:

Guidance from the FJC and BPS

FJC stands for Family Justice Council. BPS stands for British Psychological Society.

In past years, there has been concern that people appearing in court as experts lacked the necessary experience and qualifications and membership of the relevant professional body. HCPC Psychologists (and Art Therapists) are the only statutorily governed therapeutic practitioners.

There are no legal requirements regarding fitness to practice as a Counsellor or Psychotherapist, and their accreditation or registration by/with a professional body is voluntary. However, Practice Direction 25B introduced minimum standards regarding all experts, and if a counsellor or therapist is instructed as an expert, they must be registered with a relevant professional body. The relevant section of Practice Direction 25B reads:

"6. If the expert´s area of professional practice is not subject to statutory registration (e.g. child psychotherapy, systemic family therapy, mediation, and experts in exclusively academic appointments) the expert should demonstrate appropriate qualifications and/ or registration with a relevant professional body on a case by case basis. Registering bodies usually provide a code of conduct and professional standards and should be accredited by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (See Appendix 2). If the expertise is academic in nature (e.g. regarding evidence of cultural influences) then no statutory registration is required (even if this includes direct contact or interviews with individuals) but consideration should be given to appropriate professional accountability."

It is important you are aware that the court is unlikely to accept any evidence based on assessments carried out without the court´s consent. If you want a psychological assessment on yourself (to counter-act allegations), on your child, or on your ex-partner for the purpose of court proceedings, you must ask the court´s consent.

HCPC Psychologists

In order to practice as a Psychologist (Clinical, Counselling, Forensic, Health or Educational), registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) is a statutory requirement.

There is no requirement for HCPC registered Psychologists to also be a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), though many choose to be.

Clinical and Counselling Psychologists routinely work with adult and child mental health (if that is their chosen field) - carrying out assessment, diagnosis, therapy. This includes an assessment of capacity to parent based on the mental health of the parents. It is Counselling and Clinical Psychologists who most usually work with Public and Private Family Law cases.

Is experience in reporting to the court necessary?

In our opinion, absolutely. While a Psychologist or psychiatrist without this experience may conduct an assessment of similar quality, experience in attending Court, writing reports for the Court to consider and giving oral evidence is helpful. A report that is ambiguous or confusing may be misinterpreted or found to be inconclusive, requiring further assessments to be carried out. This may delay or prevent the Court from having sufficient information to make a decision.

All HCPC registered Psychologists are able to act as Expert Witnesses - the most important factor is whether they routinely work within the area they are asked to perform as an Expert and that they maintain their Continued Professional Development. Some Psychologists receive training as an Expert during their qualification period, and there is a range of additional post qualification training. Inexperienced Expert witnesses will draw on supervision from a more experienced Psychologist.

Can I ask that my ex-partner be assessed?

Yes, but the Court will only consider such a request if there are good reasons. We strongly recommend you only make such a request if you believe that your ex-partner´s mental health poses a real risk to the children (themselves or others). Be aware that psychological evaluations can delay court proceedings for months and are costly. Even if a parent has a mental illness or disorder, this does not necessarily mean they are not a capable parent.

When might a psychological assessment be required?

The Court may consider requesting a psychological evaluation when allegations of mental illness or personality disorder need to be investigated.

The primary causes for the Court to order the evaluation would be where it is alleged that behaviour attributed to mental health poses a risk to the other parent or the children (or both) or may otherwise impact on the children´s welfare.

What should the evaluation include?

Ensure you (or your solicitor if you are represented) request that the following questions are covered by the psychological evaluation and subsequent report:

Common sense dictates that the longer and more detailed the assessment, the more accurate it is likely to be. An assessment carried out over several sessions may identify behaviour that isn´t apparent in a single interview.

What should I tell the Court or the Psychologist?

If you have noticed a pattern to your partner´s behaviour, ensure that the assessor is made aware of this. You may have the opportunity to do this if you are included in the assessment. If you are not, the Psychologist should become aware of your observations and experiences if you included this information in your original statement.

If your ex-partner has a diagnosed condition, has previously received treatment or has a history of mental health problems, this should also be included in your first statement to the Court (it is important to ensure that the Psychologist has access to documentary evidence entered into proceedings, and you should ask that the Court directs this happen). In the absence of this, you may consider asking for directions that your ex-partner´s medical records are provided to the Psychologist (and your own if you are being assessed).

If you are being assessed, it is important to be honest with the Psychologist. Dishonesty during assessments can be detected via certain psychological tests.

What will the Psychologist do?

The psychological assessment will include one or more face-to-face assessments. It may include psychological tests, which are designed to identify mental illness or personality disorders depending on the type of test carried out.

What is a psychological test?

Psychological tests (known as ´personality inventories´) are questionnaires designed to identify whether the person being assessed has thoughts and behaviours that indicate they have a personality disorder or clinical illness.

The statements included in the questionnaires cover a wide range of topics, including attitudes on religion, sexual practices, perceptions of health, political ideas, information on family, education and occupation. The questionnaire identifies symptoms that are exhibited by people suffering from certain forms of mental disorder.

These tools are commonly used by Psychologists or psychiatrists to help carry out psychological evaluations.

How much do assessments cost?

Psychological assessments are expensive and if you were the party who called for the assessment to be carried out, you can expect to pay several thousand pounds. If you are eligible for legal aid, this may cover the cost. If the child(ren) is represented in proceedings by a Guardian-ad-Litem, sometimes they will share in the cost of psychological assessments.

How do I find a suitable Psychologist?

There are a number of different ways to find a suitable Psychologist. The Court may recommend one or you could ask your solicitor or barrister if they can recommend one they have worked with in the past (and respect). You can also look for one on the British Psychological Society website where you can see details of their qualifications and areas of expertise.

In 2012 an investigation found that 20% of Experts in cases lacked any qualifications and a further 20% lacked the necessary experience to act as an Expert witness in that specific area. You can check whether a Psychologist is, in fact, a practising Psychologist via the Health and Professions Council (HCPC) statutory register:

HCPC Register

Recent criticism of Expert Witness Psychologists largely revolved around Chartered Psychologists who were academics, or senior consultants, and did not carry a current case load working with clients on a regular day-to-day basis.

Past complaints to the British Psychological Society may be upheld against a Chartered Psychologist, yet that Psychologist would still be able to practice if there was no HCPC complaint - another reason to check the HCPC Register!

As with any professional, some are more suitable than others and have a better reputation. If you are using a solicitor or barrister, their recommendation is important, since they will have seen the quality of reports previously provided, how the Psychologist stands up to cross-examination, whether their findings tend to be ambiguous and open to challenge or whether their reports are precise and well founded.

The main association for Psychologists is the British Psychological Society. Check specialisms, qualifications, and locations on the BPS website.

Directory of Chartered Psychologists

To find a Psychologist who has experience as an expert witness in legal proceedings, the following British Psychological Society register can also be useful:

Directory of Expert Witnesses

Again, we then recommend you check they are a Practising Psychologist via the HCPC website:

HCPC Register

The HCPC complaints hearings and decisions can be viewed via the link below:

HCPC Hearings and Decisions

Checking the Credentials of Counsellors and Therapists

Art therapists are likely registered with the HCPC and you can confirm their registration via the link below:

HCPC Register

To act as an expert in family law proceedings involving children, a counsellor or therapist should demonstrate appropriate qualifications and/ or registration with a relevant professional body on a case by case basis. A non-exclusive list of such organisations is included in Appendix 2 of Practice Direction 25B. Practice Direction 25B sets out that the term expert includes a reference to an expert team which can include ancillary workers in addition to experts who may be considered experts in their own field. These may be counsellors or therapists. To help you check if a counsellor or therapist is a member of a relevant professional body, please use the links below. If they are not on one of these lists, you should ask which organisation they do belong to.

BACP British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

UKCP UK Counsel for Psychotherapy

NCS The National Counselling Society

BABCP The British Society for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies

ACP Association of Child Psychotherapy

British Psychoanalytic Council

In addition to checking whether the counsellor/therapist is a member of a relevant professional body, it is worth checking if there are complaint findings against them (where possible). Bear in mind organisations do not always publish details of complaint findings, and even when they do, may remove them from public view once any penalties imposed have been complied with (such as retraining or writing essays to show an understanding of their failings which led to the complaint). These complaint lists do not always appear in search engines.

Live complaint findings can be found via the links below:

BACP Complaint Findings

UKCP Complaint Findings

NCS Complaint Findings

BABCP The British Society for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies

ACP Sanction Register

BPC Practitioners Removed

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Michael Robinson © 2014

Family law information for parents whose children are resident in England and Wales

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