Psychiatric & psychological assessment (expert)

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The court’s permission is required to call an expert or to put in evidence of an expert’s report or to instruct an expert.

Assessments are carried out by an expert witness who may be a clinical psychiatrist or a psychologist or who may be both. The focus of family assessments are to establish the extent of any emotional harm suffered by a child and to explore the functioning of a family whether together or apart. The purpose of these assessments is to evaluate the participants to assist the court in determining the issues before it. To provide assistance the expert witness looks at the family as a whole and should understand the legal and clinical issues being assessed.

A risk assessment of an adult is an evaluation of the risk of aggression, mental disorder or other untoward behaviour which may have a major influence on the adults and children within a family.

Parenting assessments look at a number of variables such as parental stress, domestic violence and mental health. Other factors such as the extent of the motivation to bring about change and improve behaviour and the extent that a parent is able to acknowledge concerns by the authorities and perhaps the court is noted.

Expert evidence is meant to assist the court by providing objective, unbiased opinions on matters within their expertise. They should consider all material facts. The should be clear when an issue falls outside of their expertise or they are not able to reach a definite opinion.

Single joint experts are common as they are likely to assist the parties and the court more speedily and in a more cost-effective way.

The letter of instruction to an expert instructed by the parties is a detailed document which includes specific questions for the expert to answer; reflect what the expert has been requested to do by the court and list the documentation provided to the expert.

Experts will usually be directed to attend court for some hearings and there may be oral evidence heard from the expert.

Parental and child interviews take place in family assessments. The parental interviews aim includes gathering information about the child’s difficulties and the parents attitude and the effectiveness of their parenting. The parents’ perspectives and their perception are valuable pieces of information even if they are not always accurate and subject to bias. Child interviews are carried out in an environment which is appropriate to the child. It is not only what the child says that is taken into account but the way they say it. The level of communication between the parent and the child is noted and whether it is likely the child has been prompted or coached to provide information as well as other significant factors are taken into account.

Contact between a parent and a child will often be observed by the expert normally within a home environment or play room or other similar facility. The parents ability to respond to the health and safety of the children, attentiveness, level of supervision, food provided, actively involved or not and the physical, verbal and emotional contact are some of the factors noted. The children’s responses to the situation and the parent are assessed.

Psychological testing under controlled conditions will take place generally and a range of psychological tests should normally be utilised as no single test can reveal a diagnosis or difficulties faced in a case.

The interpretation and clinical analysis of the information gathered are all taken into account in formulating an understanding of the psychological issues and problems.

The expert is usually required by the court to map a way forward for the family which may include therapy or other assistance depending on the risk factors determined to exist.