AN EXPERT DISPLAYING ZEALOTRY IS NO HELP AT ALL (AND USUALLY HARMFUL)

In the Matter of F (a Minor)  EWHC 2149 (Fam)Mr Justice Hayden had to consider whether an expert report should be admitted in a family case.  The comments on the expert evidence are of general relevance.

The overall impression is of an expert who is overreaching his material, in the sense that whilst much of it is rooted in genuine reliable secure evidence, it is represented in such a way that it is designed to give it its maximum forensic impact. That involves a manipulation of material which is wholly unacceptable and, at very least, falls far below the standard that any Court is entitled to expect of any expert witness.”

KEY POINTS

  • An expert report contained apparently verbatim quotations from those he had interviewed.
  • In fact these were not verbatim quotes and, for the most part, not recorded fully or accurately.
  • The report was, therefore, well below the standard of an expert report that should be placed before the court.
  • The report was not admitted as evidence.

THE CASE

A psychiatric report was commissioned during public care proceedings. The psychiatrist reported on the mother. The interview with the mother was covertly recorded.  It was alleged that the subsequent report significantly misquoted and adversely misrepresented the mother.

THE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST THE EXPERT

  1. Ms Taryn Lee QC and Ms Olivia Weir prepared a very extensive schedule prefaced by the following summary of the findings they invited the Court to make:
1. Dr Harper has either misread or exaggerated the mother’s presentation during the appointments. The recordings do not support the assertion that the mother was at any point agitated, abrupt, irritated, defensive or frustrated. Indeed in respect of (iii) and (v) the conversations never, in fact, took place.
2. Dr Harper misrepresents, inaccurately surmises and/or falsely asserts that the mother made comments listed in the body of the schedule. The comments set out and attributed to the mother were either (a) not said by her in those terms, or (b) other factual information provided by the mother has been re-interpreted by Dr Harper and presented as a quote of the mother with a negative or twisted emphasis attached to it. Dr Harper then uses these ‘quotations’ by the mother to form his conclusions and recommendations.
3. Dr Harper records that the mother reported/stated various facts and/or provided the accounts listed below when in fact there is no evidence during either appointment that the subject was even discussed or if the subject was discussed these comments were not made at any point. Dr Harper has fabricated these conversations/responses and has chosen to attribute negative comments to the mother including assertions that during the assessment sessions the mother called previous experts liars, which she simply has not done. Dr Harper has abused his position of trust as a professional and as a doctor and his actions in fabricating these conversations, comments and conclusions are abusive to this vulnerable mother and are a contempt of court.
4. Dr Harper states that he completed the following psychometric tests: It is not easy to discern at what point in the assessment sessions Dr. Harper states he administered these psychometric tests and he is invited to provide (a) all of the relevant guidance and assessment papers/questions and identify within the transcripts where the assessments were conducted.
5. Dr Harper suggests that the mother was reluctant and/or unable to provide information in the following matters: Dr Harper did not, in fact, ask any specific or structured questions to elicit a response to any of the matters that he then seeks to criticise the mother for and in respect of. Some matters that he suggests she refused to provide information/answer questions in respect of [they] were never at any point raised by Dr Harper.
6. Dr Harper misrepresents what the mother has actually said, in such a manner as to create a negative impression of the mother in the examples identified.
7. Dr Harper inaccurately quotes other experts’ reports in a manner that presents a negative impression of the mother.
8. Dr Harper then relies upon his own false reporting of what the mother is supposed to have said to reach his conclusions, which ultimately lead to a recommendation of separation of the siblings and adoption of the youngest two children.
9. It is asserted that neither Dr Harper’s handwritten notes nor his comments regarding the 6th April 2016 can be relied upon for the reasons asserted in the schedule.
  1. As these findings were particularised it became clear that the allegations extended to: ‘false reporting’; ‘inaccurate quoting’ designed to present the Mother in a ‘negative light’; ‘fabrication of conversations’ and deliberate ‘misrepresentation’. In cross examination Ms Lee accused Dr Harper of ‘lying’.
THE EXPERT’S RESPONSE
  1. Responding directly to the schedule Dr Harper makes this concession:
“12. There are a number of occasions where I have referred to Mother as having said something by way of italicised text within double quotes. It is quite clear to me that anyone reading my report would have interpreted these as suggesting they were verbatim quotes. I did not, however, take verbatim notes and a number of sentences attributed to Mother are inaccurate.”
  1. I have read this paragraph a number of times. It seems to me to do Dr Harper no credit at all. It is crafted in a way that seems designed to minimise the extent of the very significant failing it represents. When pursued in cross examination it was revealed that extensive parts of the report which purport, by the conventional grammatical use of quotation marks, to be direct quotations from the Mother, are in fact nothing of the kind. They are a collection of recollections and impressions compressed into phrases created by Dr Harper and attributed to the Mother. They convey to the reader of the report only one impression, namely that they represent the authentic voice of Mother herself. The quotations are also italicised and drafted in full sentences in the idiom of the Mother rather than in the formal argot of psychology which characterises the remainder of the report. Within the context of the evaluative exercise that the Court is involved in, during care proceedings, the accurately reported phrases and observations of the parties themselves are inevitably afforded much greater forensic weight than e.g. opinion evidence, hearsay or summary by a third party. It is very likely that a Judge reading such ‘quotations’ in the report of an experienced expert witness will at least start with the strong presumption that they have been accurately and fairly recorded. It is, to my mind inconceivable that a witness of Dr Harper’s experience, which I have taken care to set out in some detail above, would not have appreciated this. Indeed, it strikes me that it would be obvious to any lay party or member of the public. Moreover, I find the concession in the statement, where mention is made of ‘a number of sentences’ is a complete distortion of the reality of the document. The report is heavy with apparent reference to direct speech when, in truth, almost none of it is. Thus, the material supporting the ultimate conclusion appears much stronger than it actually is. Given the forensic experience of Dr Harper and his extremely impressive academic background I cannot accept that he would have failed to appreciate the profound consequences of such distorted reporting.
  2. In the course of the public law proceedings the Court authorised interviews between one of the children and Dr Harper. I very much regret to say that the purported quotations in that report i.e. presented as if they were the words of the child himself are also nothing of the kind. Dr Harper used the same approach there. They are in fact a jumble of phrases extracted from jottings and / or perceived recollection. Dr Harper voluntarily submitted his notes to scrutiny, they can properly be characterised as minimal. They prompted this submission on behalf of the children’s Guardian by Mr Cohen QC and Mr Edwards:
“It is hard to know why Dr Harper has reported as he has. His methodology and minimal notes of the 3 meetings with the mother would have made it very difficult to accurately record what she had said. The court will form its own view as to his evidence. We do not suggest that he had an intent to mislead but he showed a carelessness which verged towards recklessness in making statements which he must or should have known were to be relied upon. His evidence may also have shown an overconfidence in his own professional judgment and ability that was indifferent to the correct assessment process.”
  1. Ms Lee and Ms Weir pitch the findings they seek very highly indeed, they are of the utmost gravity. It is for this reason that I required counsel to be very clear about the legal framework. Ms Lee has, in the proper presentation of her case, repeatedly impugned Dr Harper’s integrity and honesty during the course of her cross examination. It is alleged that he has fabricated the fact of the discussions between himself and the Mother and, says Ms Lee, where there is no written note of any topic of discussion it has been, in effect, invented by Dr Harper. There is no ambivalence in the way Ms Lee advances her case. In her closing written submission she asserts:
“For the avoidance of doubt, it is submitted on behalf of the mother that Dr Harper’s account of the ‘discussions’ that took place on the6 April is a lie. Likewise his handwritten note is a fabricated document (Finding 9) in which he has attempted to back-fill some of the gaps that he knew would come to light once he was alerted to the fact that the assessment sessions on the 15 and 23 March 2016 had been recorded; he of course being present at both sessions and knowing exactly what he discussed and what he did not. As such, it is submitted that his handwritten note can not be relied upon.”

THE JUDGE’S ASSESSMENT OF THE EXPERT

  1. The overall impression is of an expert who is overreaching his material, in the sense that whilst much of it is rooted in genuine reliable secure evidence, it is represented in such a way that it is designed to give it its maximum forensic impact. That involves a manipulation of material which is wholly unacceptable and, at very least, falls far below the standard that any Court is entitled to expect of any expert witness. It simply cannot be reconciled with those duties which I have pointedly set out above at para 10 and 11. Moreover, it is manifestly unfair to the Mother, who it should be emphasised is battling to achieve the care of her children whilst trying to manage life with diagnosed PTSD. Ipso facto this is a case of unique gravity and importance. Common law principles of fairness and justice demand, as do Articles 6 & 8 of the ECHR, a process in which both the children and the parents can properly participate in a real sense which respects their autonomy. Dr Harper’s professional failure here compromised the fairness of the process for both Mother and children. These are fundamental principles emphasised in Re B-S [2013] EWCA Civ 1146 and Re A [2015] EWFC 11.

COULD THE EXPERT’S REPORT BE RELIED UPON?

The answer to this question was categorical: no.
  1. Mr Rowley may very well be right. He goes on to suggest that notwithstanding the significant criticisms made of Dr Harper, his report should be allowed to stand, with the Judge who hears the case entitled to give it such weight, if any, as he thinks fit. I disagree. These are such fundamental failures of methodology that I do not consider any Judge could fairly rely on the conclusions. Furthermore, there is an inevitable risk that were I not to order that a new expert be instructed the Judge might at the conclusion of the hearing find a lacuna in the evidence in consequence of his being unable to rely on Dr Harper’s opinion. That would result in further delay for the children in a case where I have been told the final hearing is now unlikely to be effective in any event. The delay in this case in already unacceptable, the harm caused to the children because of it is the responsibility of the professionals not, I emphasise, the Mother.

COULD OR SHOULD THE EXPERT’S FAILURES BE CATEGORISED?

  1. Finally, there has been much discussion at the Bar as to how I should characterise Dr Harper’s professional failings. Ultimately I have come to the conclusion that the language or nomenclature is irrelevant. What matters is the substance of my findings and their impact on these children.
  2. Ms Lee is right to emphasise the observations of Butler-Sloss (P) in Re U: Re B (serious injury;standard of proof) [2004] 2 FLR 263 at para 23iv:
“The court must always be on guard against the over-dogmatic expert, the expert whose reputation or amour-propre is at stake, or the expert who has developed a scientific prejudice”
  1. I do not consider that Dr Harper has developed a scientific prejudice nor that he is jealous to guard his amour-propre but I do consider that his disregard for the conventional principles of professional method and analysis displays a zealotry which he should recognise as a danger to him as a professional and, more importantly, to those who I believe he is otherwise genuinely motivated to help and whom he plainly has much to offer.

WE HAVE SEEN THIS BEFORE: AN EXAMPLE IN A CIVIL CONTEXT

A tendency for an expert to put verbatim quotes in a report of matters which were simply not said, has been noted several times on this blog. A good example arises in the judgment of Mr Justice Coulson iStagecoach Great Western Trains -v- Hind & Steel [2014] EWHC 1891 (TCC). An expert for the claimant was giving evidence about the defendant’s care for her trees (a tree having fallen onto a railway line).  Here again we have a judge rejecting a large (indeed almost all) of an expert’s evidence because of faulty attribution of words that had, in fact, never been said.  See the discussion here 

  1. When he visited the site in June 2010, Mr Sheppard (who had been instructed by the claimant and was already liaising with the claimant’s solicitor) briefly inspected the site and then had what was called an informal conversation with Ms Hind. As they were speaking, and rather betraying that alleged informality, Mr Sheppard made some rough notes on a small scrap of paper. He then went back to his car and expanded on his notes, principally by inserting questions into the notes that he had already made. There has been a long-running dispute about the accuracy of the notes. Moreover, although he had told Ms Hind that he would send her a copy of the notes for her to agree, he failed to do so. There was no explanation for this failure.
  1. When he was cross-examined by Mr Stead, on behalf of Ms Hind, it quickly became apparent that there were significant inaccuracies in the notes that Mr Sheppard had made. For example, Mr Sheppard noted that Ms Hind had said that she “never” went to the area of the garden where the Tree was. Ms Hind vehemently denied saying that, and stressed instead that she had told Mr Sheppard that she did go there (as part of her general observations of the trees), albeit that (because of the overgrown nature of the area) her visits were relatively rare. In cross-examination, he accepted that, although he could no longer remember the conversation, “rarely” was the word she had used. There was no explanation as to why, in his notes, he had deleted the word “rarely” and inserted the word “never”.
  1. There were numerous other errors and misleading changes of emphasis in Mr Sheppard’s notes.Again by way of example, Ms Hind gave evidence that, during that conversation, she told Mr Sheppard about the work which Mr Steel had done. Although Mr Sheppard could not remember the conversation, he continued to deny that she had made any mention of Mr Steel’s work. That seems inherently implausible, since she would have had no reason not to mention that work, particularly as she was talking about the trees in her own garden. That implausibility was then underlined by the fact that, in his first report, dated 2010, Mr Sheppard made express reference to the work done to the trees in the garden. There was no source for that information other than Ms Hind. This again demonstrated the inaccuracies of Mr Sheppard’s note-taking technique, and his equally unreliable recollection of the conversation.
  1. Still further, I noted that, in his reports, Mr Sheppard sets out a large number of things which he said Ms Hind had said to him during that interview. They are expressed as things which Ms Hind ‘stated’. But these were not matters which were referable even to the (inaccurate) notes that he had made. When Mr Stead cross-examined him about this, he accepted that these were his words, rather than Ms Hind’s, and were his ‘interpretation’ of what she said or would have said. That meant that the reports were doubly misleading, both because they failed accurately to report what Ms Hind had actually said, and because they identified her as saying things which were, in truth, just Mr Sheppard’s interpretation of what he thought she would have said.

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