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Cost and high rate of complaints about Family Court psychologist reports turning practitioners away

21 October 2016 - By Nick Butcher

The cost and high rate of complaints about psychologist reports written for the Family Court are thought to be partly to blame for a lack of new practitioners wanting to work in the judicial system.

Who pays for the reports is also a driving factor and the psychologists that are working say they’re all mostly aged in their late 60s and are nearing retirement.

Psychologist Peter Coleman says the profession is at a crisis point with work piling up and few people available to do it.

He says there are 2500 registered psychologists in New Zealand of which about 70 do Family Court work with some also involved in private practices.

“There are roughly 40 to 50 complaints about psychologist reports each year. About 15 of those complaints are to do with Family Court matters by disgruntled parents and that number is rising,” he says.

The Ministry of Justice estimates there are about 140 report writers nationally but Mr Coleman is standing by his figure.

The New Zealand Law Society's Family Law Section chair, Michelle Duggan, says a possible reason for a lack of interest by new psychologists in court work is that they don’t enjoy having their reports cross-examined in the theatre of court.

Yet, she says, when acting in her capacity as lawyer for child, those reports are vital.

“I’ve been told by a clinical psychologist that there is a lot of work around in other areas of the profession. It’s not the money that’s the problem but the type of work they’re doing because it is adversarial.

"They’re writing reports that one of two parents in a custody situation are not going to like and then in a hearing the psychologist then has to be cross examined and criticised by Mum’s lawyer and Dad’s lawyer, so it’s quite different to the work they could be doing in a one on one situation in a clinic,” she says.

Mr Coleman says being cross-examined by three lawyers has been a traditional reason given for why psychologists avoid this work.

“It’s not a real issue. You’re a professional and you’ve done a job and there’s another professional on the other side of the desk called a lawyer who’s going to ask you pertinent questions about your report. Most of us who have been around for a while and I’d be one of them at 69 years old, would say it is probably the easiest day of your working life because you’ve read the information, done the report and nobody knows as much information about it as yourself,” he says.

Dealing with complaints about the report another key reason?

Managing a complaint is not a problem that can be quickly rectified.

“To deal with a complaint takes roughly three times as long as it did to write the report. It’s a very onerous procedure and you need legal representation for it. You also don’t get paid for doing it,” he says.

Mr Coleman says it’s mostly younger psychologists who don’t want to do Family Court work because there is always the risk to your reputation, job and future.

“It’s very rare but the consequences of a complaint being upheld is deregistration and there goes eight years of training and you’ll be stacking shelves in a supermarket,” he says.

The complaints usually revolve around accusations of a psychologist being rude or biased, not listening to the client and misinterpreting information.

The Ministry of Justice says there’s been about a 20% drop in requests for psychological reports over the past three years.

The cost of reports a driving reason?

Family lawyer, Michelle Duggan says that drop most likely comes down to money.

“Changes to the Family Court system back in 2014 means people who were not getting legal aid have to pay one third of the cost of a report and one third of the cost of lawyer for child.

"I’d be a little concerned about that. It can cost thousands of dollars,” she says.

She says lawyers for child charge about $140 an hour, and a final report by a psychologist could cost up to $8,000 and a parent without legal aid would have to pay one third of these costs.

No formal training for psychologists to do court report work

Psychologist, Peter Coleman says that’s also a dilemma that needs to be addressed.

“There’s no explicit training for Family Court work. No component in training courses for it. The closest would be the child and family programme at the University of Canterbury,” he says.

Mr Coleman says psychologists essentially learn on the job by attending workshops offered by senior experienced practitioners or supervisors.

“But with the aging workforce there’s going to be no supervisors left to run the workshops,” he says.

Mr Coleman who intends to retire over the next year says he will be one of many of the aging report writers intending to do so, which will leave a serious void in that important area of psychology work.

Recruit overseas?

Peter Coleman says recruiting overseas wouldn’t solve the problem.

“They won’t be culturally competent or understand the family court legal system. The best thing that could be done is to sort out the complaints situation, then you’ll have report writers,” he says.

Last updated on the 25th October 2016