Private Court Work

How do we compare to other professions, what roles do we take, etc. Includes descriptions of "a week in the life" of relevant posts.
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Private Court Work

Post by miriam »

I do quite a lot of work as an expert witness in court proceedings. People often ask me about it, as it doesn't seem that commonly talked about, even on clinical courses. I thought it might be nice to share some information about it here, as the current employment situation is making people think more creatively than just assuming NHS work is the only way to go.

I initially did all sorts of cases, from compensation cases, to education tribunals, to custody disputes to care proceedings, but have recently specialised in the latter.

Why court work?

Court work is the only kind of private work I do. These are some of the reasons why:

1) I don't like the idea of charging individuals for what I do. IMHO, people who can least afford to pay often need psychological services most. The court work I do is mainly funded through the Legal Fund (used to be known as legal aid) and it makes me feel less guilty that my fees are less than what the lawyers charge per hour!
2) It feels like it is doing something really important and worthwhile, to help courts make the right decisions about where children should be living (care proceedings) and to ensure judges and magistrates make decisions informed by good assessments and formulations and relevant evidence.
3) It stops people who are not properly trained and informed acting as experts if there are sufficient properly qualified professionals to do the job. Sadly, I've seen reports costing thousands of pounds where I believe the advice and conclusions are worthless or even harmful.
4) It challenges me to rigourous thinking, reading and investigating. If you risk being cross examined on your opinions, you need to know what evidence they are based on, and be clear in the way you express them.
5) I can spend more time on a single assessment than I could spend on working with a family weekly for a year in the NHS. I can read all the relevant background information, and be as thorough as I feel is necessary.
6) It pays. About 4 times my NHS hourly rate, though I have to deduct tax at 40%, plus payments to my secretary and for materials, and I have to also pay an accountant and do an annual tax return. Oh, and they takes ages to pay. Really really ages (often as long as a year). So, its an unreliable source of income, but can come in really handy!

My Ethics Regarding Court Work

I have some personal moral rules about my court work:

1) I only take cases where I feel the questions asked are within my competence and area of expertise. I would refuse to do work that I did not feel confident about, or would recommend a colleague to join me if part of the instructions were something I felt required this (eg a psychiatric opinion of a parent or child, a risk assessment of an adult).
2) I only take cases that are joint instructions. That means that all parties have to agree on me as the expert, and form one set of instructions for me. This frees me up to act in the best interest of the child (not any one party who is paying my fee) and to direct my report to the court.
3) I never risk a conflict of interest. I only take cases that are clearly outside the geographical catchment or remit of the NHS service I work for. I am lucky in that the local NHS service specificially excludes any referrals during or to inform court proceedings.
4) I never use NHS time or resources. I make calls on my private mobile phone, I buy my own packs of questionnaires and record forms (or agree with my service manager a trade of 5 forms in return for me buying a book for the department, or funding a venue for an away day, etc). I only use work equipment (eg IQ tests) out of work hours and when no-one else has booked them. I never use NHS premises. I pay my secretary for all typing related to my private work, which she does in her lunch break or after work. I post my own letters and reports using my own stamps.
5) If called to attend court during working hours I offer my manager the choice of me taking annual leave, doing an equivalent amount of admin in my own time or giving half the income from that day to the department. I do not cancel NHS appointments to attend court, as I expect to either be given advance warning or for them to work around my existing commitments.
6) Personal safety is paramount. I never do an unaccompanied home visit unless I know a family very well. I mainly see people in contact centres or their solicitor's offices. I use a work address or PO box for correspondence.

What do I actually do?

I mostly assess whether a parent has provided "good enough" care for their child, and if the care has caused "significant harm" to a child I then assess whether any interventions are likely to be able to improve the quality of care in the future. Where a child can no longer stay with a parent, I advise on suitable placements, contact arrangements, and whether any therapy is indicated.

With the parents this can include things like:
taking their history, and their view of what has happened with the child, and what needs to change
IQ assessment
structured interviews informed by the Adult Attachment Interview
exploration of social support structures
personality assessment
getting them to complete questionnaires about themselves and the child (eg Parenting Stress, Adaptive Behaviour Scales, behaviour checklists)
observation of contact

With the child it can include:
personal constructs
Family Relations Test
self-report scales
Story Stems
observations of contact

The Down Sides

1) This is hugely emotionally tough work, even for an experienced clinician. These kind of cases give you all the details of chronic child abuse and neglect, and you have to make emotionally weighty decisions that can change the outcome of people's lives. This is darker and more complex work than I do as a clinician (and I do complex work with some damaged young people even in my NHS role). You also have to be judgemental about parents who have had really difficult experiences themselves, and make the right decision for the child, even when you know that the impact on the parent will be terrible. You then have to express your views clearly and decisively in your written report. Don't underestimate the effect of being involved in this kind of work: I have dreams about the work, or times of not sleeping properly, of not trusting people, and times of just feeling like the world is full of evil.
2) The workload is massive. I typically get sent a bundle of papers to read that take me between 6 and 30 hours to read. The bundles might contain 3 or more lever arch files of dense paperwork. And you then have to find time to read and digest it, before arranging the appointments with each person involved, and then you might need to refer back to it. There might be times when the only way to plough through it is to sacrifice other things that you would rather be doing, to use up weekends, evenings, annual leave, or time where you'd be better off sleeping!
3) It takes a lot of organisation to ensure you take cases at the right intervals and don't give yourself too much to do at any one point (or, if you rely on court work for a steady income, patches without work). You then need to book the assessments, arrange venues, speak to other professionals involved, write up the reports, send them out in the correct format at the correct time, and then invoice and keep track of who has paid and keep reminding those who haven't! You are also often asked to do addendums or comment on further papers after you think the case is finished, and everything has to fit in with court timetables and be done ASAP. So, the demands on your time can vary from a dry spell with no work (even when you want it) to a time in which you are working on several things at once, despite being fully booked with other things.
4) Going to court can be anxiety provoking. I'd recommend some training for this, as you need to know who to address (the judge or magistrate), how the process works and who all the parties are, and how to slow the pace of questions and give what you need to say in the answers rather than being led into conclusions. You also need to be able to express yourself clearly and confidently to a lay audience (which may include the people you are highlighting the limitations of).
5) It can be isolated work, and it is hard to work out who to get supervision from and how to get a foot in the door. Initially you might have to take a lot longer to work on reports than you can charge for, or you might have to do background reading to esnure your expertise is sufficient for this particular case. My top tip would be to be absolutely clear about what you can (and want to) do, and don't let anyone persuade you to go beyond that, or take on more than you can handle.
6) They don't always take your advice, and you can be left with a very uncomfortable feeling about the risks to the child with the care plan that is finally chosen. Or, in the reverse, your evidence can totally change the outcome of a case so that it feels like the decision is made soley because you have come down one way or another (even if you feel like it was quite a close call). It also sometimes feels like we are doing too little too late, or that you are just there to add some professional weight to a case that should already be clear cut. So, it can feel like a weighty responsibility, or a pointless task.

Experience needed to do court work and some general considerations

To be credible as a court expert witness, you have to be qualified and have enough experience for the court to consider you to be expert on the topic. This doesn't have to mean at consultant grade, but it does mean that you are knowledgeable and confident in a speciality. I started by doing joint work and helping others with court work, or answering really simple questions regarding capacity, when I qualified. I then gradually built up to the complex cases I do now (where I put in 30-80 hours per case). Shadowing and then assisting someone else is probably the best way in, but there are agencies that can give you work if you are prepared to travel and fit in with their structure - they take a cut of the pay though!

You get offered more work if you gain a good reputation for being clear, answering the questions, and holding your ground in the witness box. So, after 6 years in one area, I get many requests I turn down, and could probably expand into a full-time business if I wished. However, with a different skill-set, geography, or reputation you may struggle to get work at all! Some areas already have established experts known to the local solicitors and it would be hard to get a look-in compared to these known quantities. Also, your price and availability affect how much you are used - courts have tight time schedules and normally need assessments done within a 3 month window.

I can't think what else to write for now, so please feel free to ask questions and I will answer and then add the responses to the Wiki.

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