Court finds care case assessment ‘distorted’ mother’s responses

Judge finds ‘fundamental failures’ in psychologist’s report means it should be withdrawn from care proceedings

Royal Courts of Justice
Photo: Gary Brigden

A High Court judge has thrown out a psychologist’s evidence to care proceedings after finding it gave a “distorted” account of a mother’s responses in an assessment.

Justice Hayden found extensive sections of the psychologist’s report claimed to be direct quotations from the mother but were “in fact nothing of the kind”. Instead they were “recollections and impressions” based on what the court found were “minimal” notes taken at meetings.

“The report is heavy with apparent reference to direct speech when, in truth, almost none of it is. Thus, the material supporting the ultimate conclusion appears much stronger than it actually is,” the judge said.

The psychologist, who had completed approximately 170 court reports and given oral evidence to the family court around 30 times, admitted he had not taken verbatim notes of their meetings and conceded parts of his report were “inaccurate”.

The experienced psychologist should have known “the profound consequences of such distorted reporting” given phrases directly attributed to parties themselves are “inevitably given much greater forensic weight” in the courts, the judge said.

He concluded that the “fundamental failures” in compiling the report meant no judge could fairly rely on it and a new expert should be instructed in the case.

Sheffield Family Court referred the matter to the High Court after the mother claimed secret recordings she’d made of meetings revealed she’d been misrepresented.

The assessment was carried out in April, as part of care proceedings for three children. The mother had severe depressive episodes, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Three meetings took place between the mother and the psychologist and he also interviewed one of the children.

The mother secretly recorded the first two meetings without the psychologist’s knowledge. None of the ‘quotes’ attributed to the mother in the psychologist’s report appeared in these recordings.

This led the judge to focus on the final meeting, which was not recorded. However he could not see how the psychologist had covered the 13 to 20 points in the report in the limited amount of time they had on that day.

The parties agreed that session in the contact centre was no longer than 15 minutes because it was interrupted by building work; the mother and psychologist then had a brief further conversation in the carpark.

“It would have involved rapid fire question and answer on each topic. Given the circumstances and the nature of the material, such a process would have also required a degree of brutality or at least gross insensitivity,” the judge said, noting that the subjects discussed included domestic abuse, childhood experiences and sexual issues.

He did not believe that the psychologist was capable of such “crassness”.

Justice Hayden said the psychologist had made “enthusiastic efforts” to cover the material on that day and did not accept the case put forward on behalf of the mother that the doctor was lying or had fabricated conversations deliberately to present the mother in a negative light.

He rejected the mother’s lawyers’ argument that the burden of proof should shift to the psychologist for him to show that he had “accurately reported the gist of what the mother had said”. The judge stressed that the test remained a balance of probabilities and the key issue was whether the evidence was reliable for use in care proceedings.

He found that the notes were genuine and material not in the notes was likely drawn from other sources, and incorporated as direct speech. However, this meant the report could not be used.

“The overall impression is of an expert who is overreaching his material, in the sense that whilst much of it is rooted in genuine reliable secure evidence, it is represented in such a way that it is designed to give it its maximum forensic impact.

“That involves a manipulation of material which is wholly unacceptable and, at very least, falls far below the standard that any court is entitled to expect of any expert witness.”

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7 Responses to Court finds care case assessment ‘distorted’ mother’s responses

  1. LongtimeSW August 31, 2016 at 1:48 pm #

    Community Care, where is the link to this important Judgement?

    Whilst not wanting to ‘name and shame’ the psychologist this has implications for decision making in the early stages of proceedings as to the worth or otherwise of the expert (and expensive) report.

    Also raises the question of – and you know what’s coming – what if this was a social worker’s report to the Court? Would their anonymity have been maintained? Do psychologists have a professional standards overseer?

    • Jane Benanti August 31, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

      In reply to LongtimeSW: the psychologists’s professional standards are monitored by the HCPC (Health & Care Professions Council) and any fitness to practise complaints against a psychologist should be referred to them. I cannot understand why the judge decided not to name the psychologist in this case as others have been named for less.

      Jane Benanti
      Consultant Chartered Psychologist

    • Kerstin T August 31, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

      I was thinking the same. If a social worker had been ‘overreaching’ this would be different, no?

    • hi terterdser August 31, 2016 at 10:32 pm #

      He is not anonymous. The full is available online and he’s named

  2. SSM August 31, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

    I am really pleased that the psychologist was not named. It always annoys me when a judge believes it is acceptable to name a social worker. They are placing the individual and their family at risk of harm.

    To safeguard my children from real risk that faces them (because mum chooses to be a social worker) they use their father’s surname at school, they have had mum barge into public toilets after them (stalked by a client who posed a risk to children who followed them), they are use to living with the police alarm in our house (after their names, DOB and address was published on a hate social workers site) and have become adjusted to police undertaking checks at the house/taking statements after assaults/threats. I have also had my brother approached by a client in the street and punched (he has the same surname) and had a client telephone my elderly mum. I will not go into the abuse/assaults I have experienced my only crime………. protecting children.

    The families/clients that we work with do not get named even when their abuse of children/adults/professionals is extreme, why should any judge think that professionals and their families should not receive the same treatment is beyond my capacity to understand.

  3. Nell August 31, 2016 at 9:34 pm #

    Longtime SW – of course the worker would have been named even if it were through referral to the HCPC. I have said this often as a senior manager – there are only a handful of ‘experts’ I will commission because so many times I have read the report and said ‘nothing there we didn’t know already or could not have stated ourselves’. I really question the over reliance on ‘experts’ as though social workers are NOT experts. What additional value do we really get? Rarely has a case in my services stood or fallen because of an ‘expert’ report. Almost always it merely confirms what we knew and what we were planning. I doubt whether they enhance the parents experience either! I am delighted to receive a report which really challenges our position, really makes us think. It happens very rarely. Just to add: this person should be struck off in my opinion.