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Videolink assessments defended

Videolink assessments defended

By Karin Derkley

Criminal Procedure Sentencing 


Forensic psychologists and psychiatrists have defended the use of video conferencing for mental health assessments of defendants after a County Court judge claimed the practice was not a reliable or valid method for a forensic report.

Forensic psychologist Patrick Newton says modern day video technology means assessments via videolink have the same validity as seeing someone across a desk – as long as the assessment does not involve psychometric assessments that require the clinician to be in the same room as the client.

"The research shows that mental health assessments yield equivalent results whether they are conducted in person or over videolink and that psychologists and psychiatrists can reach clinically valid conclusions using either modality," he says.

The practice of conducting videolink assessments on defendants has come under question after a County Court judge criticised a psychological assessment made by a clinician in a case in June. In his published decision, the judge described the use of videolinks to assess clients in custody as a “disturbing new trend” and said some experts had told him that a videolink assessment is not a reliable or valid method for a forensic psychological report.

But Mr Newton says there is no evidence that psychologists cannot make a valid and reliable assessment of a client via videolink. “Video technology has developed significantly in the past five years and even in the last two years, including in terms of encryption.”

The judge’s comments have made lawyers nervous about having their clients assessed via videolink, Mr Newton says. “Solicitors have pushed back against the use of videolink, merely because of this decision."

Forensicare executive director of clinical services Dr Danny Sullivan says that anxiety from defence lawyers about viedoconference mental health assessments means some defendants may have their court cases delayed. "In some cases defence practitioners may elect not to obtain mental health assessments for their clients when in fact that might be appropriate, which is unfortunate because the sentencing judge does not have available the necessary information to sentence."

Forensicare has for many years used video conferencing "because the pragmatic reality of providing evidence in a funding poor environment . . . means we just aren't always able to provide face-to-face assessments", Dr Sullivan says.

"If my staff travel to an urban prison, by the time they get to the prison and get through security, and then do the assessment and back again it can take three to four hours in addition to transcribing and editing their notes."

Dr Sullivan says videolink assessments are not dissimilar to doing assessments via a box visit in prison, "where you are seeing them behind glass . . . and are frequently in a room that is not soundproofed and could be overheard by people in the next room”.

"Face-to-face may build better rapport, but experience demonstrates that prisoners are comfortable seeing people by screen – particularly when it involves less inconvenience for them, and (not having to be) stripped of their normal clothes, placed in overalls, and experiencing searches, which can be humiliating."

Videolink psychological assessments are conducted via a highly secure process in the prison video conference suite, Dr Sullivan says.

Forensicare psychologist Dion Gee says some conditions can only be assessed via face-to-face psychometric assessments. He says it is essential clinicians apply a “high standard of rigour” to the process “because we’re making decisions for the judge that they will use to sentence people”.

Practice notes for the conduct of expert witnesses make it clear that there is an onus on expert witnesses to explain any limitations to their assessment, Dr Sullivan points out.

"They need to disclose that they conducted the assessment by videolink and make note of any problems with the link."

"But there is no necessity that face-to-face should be the default position – and for people in prison to receive equivalent services to those in the community there should be no obstacle to the use of video conferencing, as with much specialist healthcare in regional and remote Australia."

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