When does the court need an expert to assist as to veracity?

Summary

in Wigan Council v M, C, P, GM, G, B and CC [2015] EWFC 8, Peter Jackson had to consider whether expert evidence was required in family proceedings in relation to (1) the capacity of a witness to give evidence and (2) the witness’s veracity.  As materially similar principles apply by analogy in COP proceedings, the conclusions reached by Peter Jackson J are equally applicable to judges of and practitioners appearing in that court.

Two children, aged 15 and 16, alleged that they had been sexually abused by their stepfather. At a case management hearing, the stepfather applied for a ‘veracity assessment’ and an assessment of the children’s ability to give evidence. The application was supported by the other parties and granted by the court.

An experienced clinical psychologist with special experience in the analysis of forensic interviews was instructed. The expert concluded that there was nothing in what the children said that required the interpretation of an expert. The children were articulate teenagers who were capable of giving evidence.

Peter Jackson J, whilst acknowledging that an assessment of capacity to give evidence, and the arrangements that should be made to assist a witness to do so fairly is a proper subject for expert advice where necessary, it is not necessary in every case. He identified three principles:

  1. As a matter of law, there is no bar on the admission of expert evidence about whether evidence is or is not likely to be true.
  2. Expert evidence can only be adduced if it is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. The fact that expert evidence is admissible and might be relevant or even helpful in a general way is not enough.
  3. Cases in which it will be necessary to seek expert evidence will nowadays be rare. Judges have been trained in and are expected to be familiar with the assessment of evidence. The court is only likely to be persuaded that it needs expert advice if it concludes that its ability to interpret the evidence might otherwise be inadequate.

Peter Jackson J also expressly agreed with what was said by Baker J in A London Borough Council v K [2009] EWHC 850 (Fam) that veracity or validity assessments have a limited role to play in family proceedings. The ultimate judge of veracity, i.e. where the truth lies, is the judge and the judge alone.

Comment

In the COP, as in the Family Court, an expert may give evidence on questions going to factual matters, such as the veracity or truthfulness of a witness but the final decision upon those matters remains for the judge. Indeed, the ultimate questions of whether P has capacity and what is in their best interests are matters for the court.

The equivalent to Part 25 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 is COPR Part 15 accompanied by PD 15A. Pursuant to rule 121, the COP is under a specific duty to limit expert evidence to that which is “reasonably required” to resolve the proceedings. This is in contrast to s.13(6) Children and Families Act 2014, which dictates that expert evidence can only be adduced if it is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings justly.  It is likely that this this change will be introduced in due course in the COP.  It would therefore be wise for COP practitioners to take heed of the three principles identified by Peter Jackson J when considering whether to seek to adduce expert evidence going to veracity.   Indeed, it is only like ever to be required where there are real doubts (for instance) as to whether a person has the mental capacity to understand the import of what they saying.  An example from the experience of the editors where this has arisen is where a person with a severe learning disability placed in a care home made allegations of sexual abuse but where there were doubts as to whether the words that they are using reflected their own experience or words that they had picked up from contact with other service users or from the media.   In that case, the assistance of an expert psychologist was undoubtedly necessary, but these cases are likely to be rare.

[A version of this note appeared in the March 2015 39 Essex Chambers Mental Capacity Law Newsletter]

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