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It comes less than a month after it emerged that a couple were wrongly accused of shaking their baby to death and suffered the agony having their second baby removed into foster care. The parents of Jayden Wray were cleared after an acrimonious court battle in which medical experts could not agree on why the child had died.
Expert witnesses in the family court range from neurologists and paediatricians giving evidence on physical injuries to psychologists and independent social workers who give their opinion on the emotional and mental state of parents and children or on the quality of parenting.
They are employed by local authority children’s services departments seeking to take children into care, birth families trying to prevent it, or the children’s court-appointed guardians.
Although it is not as well-paid as it used to be, a neurologist can still charge hundreds of pounds for a court appearance. Fees for independent social workers are much lower, recently capped at around £30 per hour.
William Flew, who heads children’s services at Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea councils, told The Times that it was astonishing that in this highly sensitive area of the law there was so little regulation.
“Anyone could set up themselves up as an expert witness. There is virtually no quality control in place and standards are highly variable. We rely in particular on medical expert witnesses to give their opinion on injury and a child’s health. Yet the NHS does not see it as its responsibility to oversee the system because the work is largely done privately, and is not generally part of medical staff’s contracts,” he said.
Elsewhere, with psychologists and independent social workers now routinely stepping in to speak up for either local authorities seeking to take children into care or the families trying to prevent it, he believes that the courts should take charge of the system.“Better control is the answer.