Who should conduct assessments of the quality of forensic interviews?

Requests for assessments of forensic interviews are often made by lawyers defending accused individuals in criminal and civil court cases to determine whether or not interviews were conducted fairly. Given what is currently known about the laws of memory and how they apply to child forensic interviewing, combined with the social, linguistic, and emotional factors that are involved, it is not surprising that professionals turn to psychologists to provide these assessments. An expert witness will often be asked to prepare a report for the parties involved that can inform fact-finders of any concerns with the way interviews were conducted, and thus affect the weight that should be placed on the interview as evidence. Sometimes, however, there is heated debate about exactly who should be considered an expert, especially when issues to do with memory and suggestibility are to be considered.

In many jurisdictions Judges themselves decide who should be considered an expert, but there are also professional standards and ethical considerations, about which psychologists should be particularly aware. Some experts are so considered because they are recognized by their peers as scholars in the field. The easiest way to assess this ‘recognition’ is through publications in peer-reviewed journals. The peer-review process functions to improve the quality and coherence of scientific research, and demonstrates that the expert’s reasoning is consistent with that of scholars who have had the opportunity to evaluate their work. Although qualified experts may still have differences of opinion, selecting suitably qualified expert witnesses decreases the chance that there will be ‘battles of the experts’ in court. In reality, many professionals are willing to put themselves forward as memory experts based on their professional experience and training rather than an understanding of the dynamics of memory and scientific research about interviewing children. Thus, disagreements between experts are often better understood with reference to individual training and qualifications. For this reason, whenever experts provide court reports it is advisable to provide up-to-date curricula vitae so that professional qualifications are transparent.

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