Family courts calling fewer expert witnesses, finds Cafcass study

Research finds fewer experts are being used but confidence in the system is high with 88% of guardians saying experts add value

Picture credit: OJO Images/Rex Features
Picture credit: OJO Images/Rex Features

Fewer expert witnesses are being called to give evidence in care proceedings, according to research by the family courts body Cafcass.

The Cafcass study examined 184 care applications made in November 2011 and discovered 70% of cases used at least one expert witness, compared to 92% of care proceedings in 2009, according to a previous study.

Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, said the finding showed that the family justice system was responding to the family fustice review’s recommendation that expert witness are only used when necessary, a suggestion that the government intends to put into law.

“At a time where scarce resources must be directed to the right areas, we agree with the Family Justice Board that the use of expert witness should be limited to cases in which they are absolutely necessary,” he said.

In the vast majority of cases where experts were called, it was decided their evidence was valuable. The research found children’s guardians involved in the cases examined felt 88% of the experts had a positive impact on the outcome of the case, compared to just 2% who felt their witnesses had a negative effect.

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‘Good expert evidence can speed up care proceedings’

Although the family justice review concluded that expert evidence was too often duplicating local authority social work and creating delay in a case, the research found good use of expert witnesses can reduce delay in cases.

“The right expert can offer unique insight and value about into a child’s needs,” Douglas said. “In such cases, Cafcass guardians said that the evidence offered by expert witnesses has increased the speed of proceedings.”

It is the first time Cafcass has examined guardians’ views of experts called in care proceedings. As such, a spokesperson said it is impossible to know whether the reduction in experts is leading to witnesses that may have benefitted cases not being used or weeding out experts who were not adding value to cases.

The study also found that experts were more likely to be called on in longer cases, but was unable to identify why this was the case.

A report into the work of independent social workers (ISWs), published last year by Dr Julia Brophy of Oxford University, found ISWs add considerable value in complex cases, and little evidence they contribute to delay.

It warned against policy changes to reduce the number of expert witnesses following the family justice review.

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