Expert Witnesses in Child Custody Proceedings
The rules of evidence employed by the courts in legal actions set out the qualifications for expert witnesses, which may be said in a general way to consist of a level of education, training, or experience that has created in such a witness a degree of knowledge about a particular scientific or technical subject that is greater than the knowledge of such a subject possessed by people lacking such education, training, or experience. Unlike most witnesses, whose testimony in court proceedings is limited to factual matters actually known to them, expert witnesses are permitted, based on the factual evidence that has been presented in court, to express their opinions on issues related to the technical subjects within their areas of expertise. Extensive use of expert witnesses is made in both civil and criminal proceedings in the United States.
Because the issues raised in child custody proceedings, which are grounded in a concern for the best interests of the child, deal with questions of mental and physical health, sociology, and educational development, expert testimony can clearly assist a judge in reaching his or her decision in a child custody dispute. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, for example, can provide both factual and opinion evidence on the subjects that form the basis for a judicial conclusion in such a case. Judges are given extensive discretion in the admission and weighing of expert testimony, and it is important to establish a sound scientific or technical basis for the opinions an expert witness expresses in such a case.
Family law in the United States, including the legal principles guiding courts in disputes over child custody, has developed out of the separate legal systems of each of the states rather than from a single unified body of federal law. The legal standards governing the admission and importance of the testimony of expert witnesses in child custody proceedings will thus vary from state to state.
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