In 2012, the “Ireland Report” was published. It was highly critical of the standards of psychological reports prepared for the family courts, something that there had been rumbling concerns about for years.

The Ireland Report has come back into the news again recently because the author of it, Professor Jane Ireland, is subject to an ongoing Fitness To Practise hearing arising from this research. The regulatory body for psychologists is the Health & Care Professions Council (The HCPC). This is of course the second time recently where an expert involved with the family court has been subject to fitness to practise proceedings, although that involved the medical tribunal system. We wrote about the other expert, Dr Waney Squiers, here.

In light of the Ireland Report being back in the news, we thought it would be useful to set out some of the background and some of the views expressed about the report at the time. Some of them overlap with the complaints that the disciplinary tribunal is dealing with – others do not.

At the time, Transparency Project member Lucy Reed wrote a number of blog posts about this research and reactions to it on her Pink Tape blog. In those posts, she raised some concerns about the limitations and methodology of the report, whilst recognising the picture painted of sometimes sloppy reports that did not advance the case. Lucy also raised some queries about the lack of transparency in the relationship between Professor Ireland and the Family Justice Council, of whom Professor Ireland was a member, but who also commissioned the report. See here : Experts upon Experts

Lucy also wrote about the public criticism of the research by others in the field (lack of peer review etc), and the subsequent distancing of themselves from the research by the FJC (having commissioned it they declined to publish or endorse it). See here : Experts in Family Courts (regarding a letter from Dr Westmacott about the research), and here : FJC distances itself from experts report.

Other articles about the research written at the time include :

The New Law Journal article reminds us that the report was publicised in The Daily Mail on the same day that Channel 4 News aired a special report “based on a series of discussions with Professor Ireland and the FJC, which began in August 2011 before her report was written and submitted” (our emphasis). That article also tells us that Professor Ireland was granted access to the relevant court files by the Ministry of Justice “Data Access Panel” or DAP. The DAP does not examine ethical elements and required that Professor Ireland sought ethical approval from UCLAN to ensure that “the privacy, dignity and integrity of subjects was protected by the design”. However, according to the Westmacott article, there was in fact no meaningful ethical scrutiny by UCLAN at all.

The eight counts with which Dr Ireland is charged can be found on the HCPC website here, but are set out here for ease of reference :

Whilst registered as a Practitioner Psychologist and employed as a Forensic Psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, you undertook research and prepared a report entitled “Evaluating Expert Witness Psychological

Reports; Exploring Quality” and you:

  1. Made use of 126 expert reports from 180 court bundles without seeking the informed consent of:

(a) the authors of the report; or

(b) the subjects of the reports;

  1. Did not ensure that the reports used in your research were properly redacted such that you and your team had access to sensitive and personal information about vulnerable adults and children;
  1. Made claims in your conclusion that cannot be substantiated by the data and methodological analysis presented, in that:

(i) The conclusion that “one fifth of experts are not qualified” is not supported by the data presented in the report;

(ii) The conclusion that the absence of clinical practice among expert witnesses “poses challenges for the courts” is not supported by the data presented;

(iii) The following methodological limitations do not support the presentation of the report’s conclusions as evidence based findings:

(a) The narrow professional background of raters;

(b) The absence of adequate blind rating;

(c) The use of a ‘quality scale’ developed solely on the views of the four raters;

(d) The use of a ‘quality scale’ which was not subject to an independent construct validity test.

  1. Presented unsubstantial conclusions from the report for publication in a national newspaper on 13 March 2012 and on a national television news programme;
  1. Threatened fellow Psychologists with legal action if they did not withdraw their complaints about your research;
  1. When conducting research into expert witness reports in Family Court Proceedings, you failed to declare a conflict of interest.
  1. The matters described in paragraphs 1 and 6 constitute misconduct and/or lack of competence.
  1. By reason of that misconduct and/or lack of competence, your fitness to practise is impaired.

It can be seen that a number of the matters which are now subject to the fitness to practise hearing overlap with complaints that in particular Sam Westmacott and Dr Alam made in their NLJ article and in the published letter from Sam Westmacott referred to in the Pink Tape blog posts.

The hearing is currently ongoing and is scheduled to end on 8 June. It is not clear if a decision or reasons will be announced on that date or at some later stage.

In January 2016 the Family Justice Council and the British Psychological Society published Guidance entitled : Psychologists as expert witnesses in the Family Courts in England & Wales: Standards, competencies and expectations.

UPDATE 7 June 2016 : The Law Society Gazette reports that the fitness to practice charges against Professor Ireland have been dismissed (no case to answer on all allegations bar one, with the remaining one found not proved). There is currently no decision record showing on the HCPC website but it will probably appear here if and when published.