Use and Abuse of Research in the Courtroom

In parenting cases, judges are asked to resolve the dispute by reference to the best interests of the child.  In many cases, they have the benefit of expert witnesses who are trained in a social science and who draw upon the available research, directly or implicitly, in making recommendations concerning the child’s best interests. Lawyers and judges may also be exposed to social science research in other ways, including conferences and educational programs. While the contribution of social science has been valuable, and many core propositions from that body of research have passed into generally accepted knowledge among family law professionals, the use of social science research in resolving individual cases remains, in some respects, problematic. A recent article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, which was written particularly for lawyers and judges, outlines the issues involved in evaluating research findings, some of the dangers of using social science research in courts dealing with families and children, and measures that might help ensure the more appropriate use of such research in judicial decision-making. Giving lawyers and judges the tools to assess the reliability of social science evidence is arguably as important as exposure to evidence about particular issues that arise in the family law context.

For the abstract



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