We are used to hearing the terms ‘privacy’ and ‘confidentiality’. The intention is to protect the dignity of people who find themselves at the heart of cases. But at what point does privacy turn into secrecy? Often when a mistake has been made and the perpetrators want to keep it hidden.
One reason is to save face and another may be because professional people command large salaries. Their work requires extensive training and can have a profound affect on people’s lives. But professional people have egos too. Like the rest of us they can be tempted by monetary gain as we saw in the Parliamentary expenses scandal. We know how weak people can be when tempted by such opportunities. Only two MPs didn’t join in. This is why we need checks and balances in those systems that affect all of us and we can only have them where there is openness and transparency.
I’m old enough to remember the cold war and the groundswell of public opinion against the use of nuclear weapons. We ‘Russian dupes’ were told by members of Mrs Thatcher’s government that we needed to protect our democracy because it was so different from the Soviet style workings of a totalitarian government. Well, not any more.
Research from the University of Central Lancaster shows that most expert witness psychologists used by Family Courts no longer have a clinical practice. While this is fine with their regulating body, the Health and Care Professions Council, it means that for some the temptation exists to turn the Family Court system into a nice little earner and frame their reports to what the Cafcass Officer wants to hear. Being all professionals together, they may not even be aware of their bias. The French have a term for this: ‘deformation professionelle’. It’s about time it was recognised here.
Case histories abound, from the psychologist who had a receptionist send the dad away for half an hour, later reporting that he had turned up late and was prone to mislead and exaggerate; to the one who was so offended after reading posts about herself on an Internet site she erroneously attributed them to the mum. She then made a U-turn on her previous report and recommended that the child remain with a father so abusive his next partner committed suicide.
Such people not only wreck children’s and parents’ lives, they also betray their fellow professionals who are genuinely trying to do a good job in tricky circumstances. It takes maturity and experience, not short cuts, to work out which partner is really the obstructive one. Only then can a fair solution be made for the benefit of the child, and let’s face it, in these difficult times children need all the love and support they can get.
Ideally the workings of all Courts should be open. The clear light of day makes it harder for those manipulating events for their own ends to keep their actions hidden. In April 2009, following an initiative by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, journalists were given the right to attend hearings in Family Courts. It was thought that if the workings of the Court were under scrutiny this would lead to higher competency. That in turn would restore public confidence. Unfortunately, judges were allowed to opt out of allowing the press access to their courts. Rarely do those with power relinquish it voluntarily. Why change the habit of a lifetime? They didn’t, and Family Courts remain closed.
What options are left to uphold the standards deemed necessary for a civilised society? Complaints against Cafcass can be referred to the Health and Parliamentary Ombudsman but not so for complaints against expert witnesses. Please sign the e-petition asking for an Ombudsman to be appointed so that complaints to the HCPC about expert witness psychologists can be properly upheld:
‘Family Courts are held in private and outcomes are usually based on reports from Cafcass (Children and Families Court Advisory Support Service). These reports may cite evidence from psychologists who act as expert witnesses. However, a closed system leads to lack of accountability and abuse of power by those few individuals who have learnt how to bend the rules, either as a short cut or for more personal reasons.
Checks and balances are necessary to prevent laxity or corruption in our legal services. This petition calls for private regulating bodies, such as the Health and Care Professions Council, to have an Ombudsman appointed so that complaints to those bodies may be properly upheld.’
It may be reached through http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44643.
Anne is a member of Families Need Fathers and a trustee of the Association for Shared Parenting.