Instructing a clinical psychologist in a private children law case

As a family lawyer, it is essential to consider each client’s case with a fresh perspective; each case brings a unique set of facts that demands a tailored approach. For example, after speaking to a client in the initial meeting, it may become clear that the most proportionate and appropriate way of dealing with the case is to draw up an agreement as soon as possible; whilst another case may require a completely different approach, perhaps with the instruction of a forensic accountant in order to advise on one party’s business interests.

This flexible way of working to achieve the best outcome for the client is especially true when acting for clients in relation to arrangements for their children. You may have a case where it is in the best interests of your client and the children involved to instruct a clinical psychologist to produce a report and give their expertise on a particular issue.

When should I think about involving a clinical psychologist?

There are a number of reasons you may decide that instructing a clinical psychologist in your client’s case may be crucial to achieving the best outcome for the parties involved and most importantly, the children. These may include:

  1. Concerns of parental alienation
  2. Concerns of a mental health disorder that affects a parent’s ability to look after a child
  3. Concerns that one or more of the children is suffering with a mental health disorder

If parties are unable to agree on the need to instruct an expert, you will of course have to make an application to the court for the joint instruction of a Single Joint Expert. The expert should preferably be agreed with the other parent’s representative, to prevent later arguments about the validity and suitability of the expert.  The application will need to exhibit CVs and the relevant experience and costs of potential experts and a draft letter of instruction, which will need to be agreed with the other parent’s representative.

The psychologist will meet with each of the parents and probably the children and may take several weeks to prepare their report.  The report may start with an assessment of each parent and child in the family to include an analysis of their personality, their cognitive ability and upbringing together with other factors to build a comprehensive picture of the type of character each member of the family is. It may then go on to assess how each person has experienced and perceived the breakdown of marriage. It may address how each parent talks to their children and whether they can understand the other family members’ perspectives. The report will typically end with a conclusion bringing all of this information together supporting the expert’s opinion, for example whether parental alienation is in fact happening and further whether it is the cause of the child’s/children’s behaviour towards a particular parent. It may also go further and suggest a proposed therapeutic plan and arrangements for the children going forward in light of that opinion.

If a report is produced, it is not unusual for the expert to be asked to attend court to be questioned on their report (unless the parties settle beforehand).

Keeping costs proportionate

It goes without saying that instructing an expert, whether by agreement or through application to the court by one party, should only be done where there is a genuine reason for concern about the issue it seeks to resolve. It must be proportionate to the overall issues of the case and to the money your client has available to spend on the case.

by Rachel Elliott, Associate Solicitor