Expert risk assessments of violence or abuse within the family

INFORMATION FOR REFERRERS

Timescales

Typically, we can file a report within four weeks from receipt of the letter of instruction and court bundle (or case papers in PLO cases), but please contact us on a case-by-case basis as our workload varies.

Costs

Our fees conform to the codified rate for risk assessment experts set out by the Legal Aid Agency. We endeavour to work within the LAA guidelines, but total costs can vary depending on the complexity of the case, the number of individuals concerned, the amount of documentation to be examined. Please contact us on a case-by-case basis for an estimate.

What does a risk assessment involve?

A risk assessment involves: a thorough analysis of the case papers, a face-to-face interview with each parent, and telephone consultations with other professionals involved. Contemporaneous notes are kept throughout.

We produce a comprehensive report that identifies the quantum of risk and makes recommendations about how any risk identified can be managed or reduced. All reports comply with the latest Practice Direction.

What documents do we need?

Risk assessment is essentially an investigative process: the better the quality and quantity of information available to the assessor, the better the assessment. In addition to a letter of instruction clearly setting out the scope of the assessment (the wording of which should ideally be agreed with us beforehand), we need the following information:

  • contact details for all the parties involved and their legal representatives
  • a copy of the court order (where appropriate)
  • an up-to-date copy of the court bundle.

It is very helpful for us to have copies of the parties' criminal records and any other police intelligence available.

Where does the assessment take place?

We normally expect to see the parent(s) at our offices in Saltash (just off the A38 into Cornwall). Alternatively, where the cost is justified, we can travel and undertake the interviews in a room provided by the solicitors or the local authority.

Wouldn't an assessment by a psychiatrist or psychologist be more appropriate?

Where domestic violence is an issue, children's safety and welfare are not always best served by a failure to recognise domestic violence as a highly specialised field to which models and theories from other disciplines cannot be readily applied. While mental health practitioners have been the experts traditionally called upon to provide assessments in family law proceedings, they may not be able to provide the best informed assessment of risk when domestic violence is the primary child protection concern.

Psychiatric disorders are generally weak predictors of both domestic violence and child abuse, and the majority of family violence perpetrators do not exhibit significant mental health problems.

There is also little to justify reliance on personality testing in such cases: psychometric instruments cannot establish truth and they are poor predictors of risk and of parenting capacity. Many family violence perpetrators are experts at deception and fare better than their victims in psychological tests.

Research indicates that past behaviour alone is a better risk indicator of violence potential than expert opinion based solely upon clinical constructs or impressions, the reliability of which has been found to be singularly unimpressive. Where family violence is the concern, leading authorities therefore call for assessors with extensive experience in the field, detailed knowledge of the large and ever-growing empirical literature, and an understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships.

In cases where the evidence is disputed, do we need to have findings of fact before we undertake a risk assessment?

The issue of undertaking a risk assessment in the absence of a finding of fact is not a straightforward one. A reliable risk assessment depends heavily upon the quality and quantity of the evidence available. Given the heterogeneity of perpetrator profiles and the shortcomings of risk assessment technology and of psychometric testing, establishing the nature of an individual's past behaviour is central to the construction of a credible assessment. Where important facts are disputed, an assessor is therefore generally better placed to deliver a robust assessment if the court first makes a finding of fact in accordance with the Practice Direction. (This also presents less work for the assessor, who does not have to contend with unresolved allegations, ambiguous evidence and contradictory accounts. Moreover, the assessor can then avoid the risk of trespassing on judicial territory by expressing a view about untested evidence.)

However, the nature of domestic violence is such that it can be notoriously difficult to prove since what is alleged typically occurs 'behind closed doors' and away from public view; the victim is usually the only eyewitness. Some judges tell us that they welcome an approach in which the expert assessor forms a provisional view about the disputed facts (where they are germane to the assessment), and therefore about the level of risk involved, in order that the court is as informed as possible when making its own deliberations. Such an approach to risk assessment often seems to assist the court in settling matters without holding a finding-of-fact hearing. Of course, wherever possible in such cases, we try to offer a range of opinion about risk to suit the different conclusions the court might reach (if this, then that ……).

Can we carry out an assessment without meeting the individual concerned?

Where the individual concerned is unwilling or unable to attend for interview, we are usually able to provide a provisional report, provided there is sufficient information available from collateral sources.

Do we need to see both parties?

A risk assessment is only as good as the information upon which it is based. We much prefer to meet with both parties to ensure that we have access to as much evidence as possible.

Do we see the children?

We are adult specialists and do not normally expect to have contact with the children involved.


Ahimsa (Safer Families) Limited © 2004