Expert Evidence What Is Good Quality

Although the overall report quality improved slightly after national guidelines were published in Sweden in 1991, many experts only partly followed these recommendations. It appears as if the guidelines did not influence practice to the extent that was hoped for. If the guidelines are to be seen as an expression of what is considered 'good quality' in expert evidence, this finding indicates that different or complementary types of interventions are needed in order to achieve a reasonable level of quality in forensic assessments of alleged victims of sexual abuse.

On the other hand, the concept of 'quality' in forensic assessment is complicated. The most complicated issue in a legal case relating to alleged child sexual abuse is naturally whether there is information pointing at a need for intrusive decisions that may have serious consequences for those involved, such as convicting the accused. Thus, the most important aspect of quality must be that an evaluator who is consulted on such a crucial matter as to give an opinion on the credibility of a witness draws the correct conclusion. However neither the Swedish national guidelines, nor guidelines or recommendations published elsewhere, set up guarantees of correct conclusions if the guidelines were followed. Instead government authorities or professional organisations approach the issue of quality indirectly, in the sense that the recommendations made are supposed to guarantee transparency. Transparency increases the demands on the evaluator and decreases the possibility of unfounded speculation. A transparent evaluation creates a possibility for external validation, that is, when the receiver of the report is given an opportunity to follow the reasoning and judge the strength of the conclusions.

When measuring report quality using criteria based on the national guidelines, it is important to have in mind that what is measured is only transparency. Although it is unlikely, it is possible for an expert witness to follow many of the guideline recommendations and still draw the wrong conclusions regarding the credibility of the child's account, just as it is for a court to get it wrong. However transparency is an accepted quality indicator in many different fields, for example science, and should be able to serve as one of several quality indicators.

Another aspect of quality concerns whether the court and the expert witness collaborate in a constructive and mutually fruitful way. To evaluate such a quality aspect, one must have a view of what is to be considered 'constructive' or 'fruitful'. In the particular study, the norm to which practice was compared was the opinion within the Swedish legal system that an expert evaluation shall supply the court with relevant information and competence, contributing to well-informed decisions. In other countries, or other jurisdictions, other norms for assessing quality of communication may have to be used.

The requests from courts to experts were often similar and brief, using standard expressions such as asking for opinions on credibility or reliability of the witness or the witness's statement. As a contrast, the expert evaluations were very diverse. Some experts focused exclusively on the child's account, such as when and where the child had disclosed abuse. In such reports, there were no comments on family situation, the child's developmental level, cognitive abilities or language skills. Other experts focused mainly on the emotional and intellectual functioning of the child, the social and family situation, without discussing what the child had actually said or in which circumstances the disclosure was made. It appeared as if experts interpreted the requests from the courts in line with their preferred practice. Despite these different perspectives, different experts claimed to be in a position where they could give an opinion on the credibility of the child or the reliability of a statement. This observation indicates a severe lack of consensus among different psychological experts with regard to concepts such as 'credibility' or 'reliability'.

Most likely, the court has not formed any opinion of its own with regard to what should be included in an evaluation of 'credibility' or 'reliability', but rather has viewed this as the expert's responsibility. The dilemma occurs when two parties communicate through vaguely defined concepts that can be interpreted differently according to the norms of different professional groups. There is a major risk that such concepts are filled with different content, and as a result thus create an arena for misunderstanding. A consequence is that even in cases where the court has assigned the expert, this does not seem to be a guarantee for relevant and legally useful expert reports.

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