About the Family Law Week blog

The Family Law Week Blog is a companion site to Family Law Week. It complements the news, cases and articles published on Family Law Week with additional comment and coverage of the wider aspects of family law.

The Blog is edited by Jacqui Gilliatt, of 4 Brick Court and Lucy Reed, of St Johns Chambers.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Assessing Risk

Last week I attended the annual London Family Justice Council’s Seminar on Risk Assessment. It was a highly informative day and attended by a wide cross section of those involved in family justice. Of particular interest was the talk given by Prof Don Grubin, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry from the University of Newcastle. In his experience the attitude in USA was very different in respect of experts where lawyers would know the area of expertise as well as the expert and would cross examine much more vigorously. Prof Grubin’s suggestion for the UK family courts was for a single court appointed expert in cases with each party being able to have an expert to advise them on the court appointed expert’s report and areas for cross examination. It was his opinion that lawyers should have a good enough understanding of expert areas to be able to cross examine effectively. When experts talk about “high risk” lawyers should be asking them what they mean by that – is it the same definition that the court is thinking of? He argued that lawyers must challenge standard stock phrases when talking about risk assessment. In particular he said he was an experienced expert and had never been asked in the UK courts (as he was routinely asked in the US) about the instruments that he had used in his risk assessments and it would be the first question that he would ask. What instruments have been used and are they valid? What is the data/evidence to back up that instrument? There are instruments being used for risk assessments which are supported by studies which don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Another interesting point which was raised was whether the use of polygraphs can help in the family courts? (see this link for a general overview). We were told that polygraphs have been used three times in the UK family courts and are 80% reliable. Would you recommend a polygraph to a parent with a success rate of 80%? This article by the Guardian examines whether polygraphs are reliable and discusses how they are being used more than we think. Professor Grubin has writen an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry on polygraphs in the testing post sex offenders. Most interesting was the evidence we were shown at the seminar from studies by Heil et al (2003) on polygraphs where questions were asked about the likelihood of re offending. The studies found that when being polygraphed people disclosed much more information voluntarily on their likely re offending behaviour than when they were not undertaking a polygraph. When convicted child molesters were asked whether they would sexually abuse relatives yes responses went from 16% when not being polygraphed to 65% when polygraphed. The speakers thought that polygraphs would be particular useful in family cases where the issues revolved around “he said, she said” types of allegations.

Dr Gillian Mezey asked the seminar for comments about what makes them chose an expert. Why do we choose X over Y? Is it reputation? Do they have a list? Is it because an expert has been on a particular course? She wanted to work with the Royal College of Psychiatrists to produce some sort of an accredited list of experts as she was concerned that experts could go on a course and call themselves an expert which would give the impression of them being more experienced than they actually were.

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