According to a study by the Children And Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), the proportion of care proceedings cases in which experts were brought into court to give evidence dropped from 92 per cent in 2009, to 70 per cent in 2012.
Over the three-year period, there has been a significant drop in the use of independent social workers. These were instructed in only nine per cent of cases in 2012, compared with 33 per cent in 2009.
The findings suggest that local authorities have responded to recommendations in the 2011 Family Justice Review, which identified a “trend towards an increasing and, we believe, unjustified use of expert witness reports, with consequent delay for children”. In particular, it recommended independent social workers “should be employed only exceptionally”.
The study also indicates that authorities are cutting the number of times they turn to expert witnesses in an effort to speed up proceedings as the April 2014 deadline for the 26-week target for the duration of care cases gets closer.
The research relates to responses to an online survey by 184 Cafcass guardians, who were involved in around 200 cases. There were 245 experts instructed to give evidence in these cases, with more than half (54 per cent) involving more than one expert.
Adult psychiatrists and psychologists were the most frequently instructed experts, contributing in 25 and 38 per cent of cases respectively. Child psychiatrists and psychologists made up 10 per cent of all the experts instructed and paediatricians 6 per cent.
The majority of experts(55 per cent) were jointly instructed by all of the parties involved in the proceedings – the local authority, the children’s guardian and one or both of the parents.
Cafcass guardians said that evidence provided by 88 per cent of experts helped the court make a decision on the care application.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “Cafcass research shows that the family justice system is responding to the recommendations made by the Family Justice Review, even before legislation has been put in place.
“At a time where scarce resources must be directed to the right areas, we agree with the Family Justice Board that the use of expert witnesses should be limited to cases in which they are absolutely necessary, in accordance with the latest practice direction from the president and emerging case law.
“Cafcass guardians have found the right expert can offer unique insight and value about into a child’s needs. In such cases, Cafcass guardians said that the evidence offered by expert witnesses has increased the speed of proceedings.”