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See also Legal psychology - Forensic psychology & Legal issues - Category:Forensic psychology

Forensic psychology is the application of psychological priniciples and knowledge to various legal activities involving child custody disputes, child abuse of an emotional, physical and sexual nature, assessing one's personal capacity to manage one's affairs, matters of competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility & personal injury and advising judges in matters relating to sentencing regarding various mitiagants and the actuarial assessment of future risk.

In the civil law arena, forensic psychologists often provide assessments of whether someone has been harmed by some event. For example, in a wrongful death suit, a psychologist might offer opinions as to whether a plaintiff suffered emotional trauma in response to the death of a loved one. They might also assess the emotional injuries suffered by someone who has been injured in an accident or who witnessed a traumatic event. Psychologists are often called upon in sexual harassment suits to describe the impact of the harassment on the purported victim. In this arena, the forensic psychologist might be required to provide treatment recommendations or to analyze the specific treatment needs of an individual, and might be asked to determine the potential cost of such treatment.

In the arena of workers' compensation law, a forensic psychologist might be called upon to describe how workplace stress factors impacted the psychological functioning of a claimant, or to determine whether the purported work place stress had any affect on the worker at all. As in the more general civil law context, the forensic psychologist might be asked to determine treatment needs and treatment plans.

In the family law arena, forensic psychologists are often called upon to assess the "best interests" of children whose parents are divorcing. Commonly, this involves making recommendations to a Court with respect to child custody arrangements. Child custody mediation is another role that forensic psychologists undertake in the family law arena - serving as a mediator between divorced parents who remain in dispute about the needs and interests of their children. In some jurisdictions, forensic psychologists are appointed as "special masters" by the Court, and are charged with making both recommendations and orders for the care of children in disputed custody situations.

Forensic psychologists are perhaps most commonly recognized for their involvement in the criminal law. Psychologists provide Courts with analysis relevant to questions of criminal insanity and trial competence. They help Courts decide whether sex offenders are likely to re-offend or whether they are dangerous. They provide information and recommendations necessary for sentencing purposes, grants of probation, and the formulation of conditions of parole. Forensic psychologists are routinely called upon in death penalty cases to provide analysis of the intentions, motivations and personality characteristics of the accused. In the Juvenile Courts, they often are asked to help determine whether a youthful offender can be rehabilitated. They assist prosecutors, defenders, and law enforcement investigators in understanding a range of normal and criminal behaviors, sometimes serving as "criminal profilers."

Forensic psychology is the intersection between psychology and the criminal justice system. It involves understanding criminal law in the relevant jurisdictions in order to be able to interact appropriately with judges, attorneys and other legal professionals. An important aspect of forensic psychology is the ability to testify in court, reformulating psychological findings into the legal language of the courtroom, providing information to legal personnel in a way that can be understood.[1] Further, in order to be a credible witness, for example in the United States, the forensic psychologist must understand the philosophy, rules and standards of the American judicial system. Primary is an understanding of the adversarial model under which the system functions. There are also rules about hearsay evidence and importantly the exclusionary rule. Lack of a firm grasp of these procedures will result in the forensic psychologist losing credibility in the courtroom.[2] A forensic psychologist can be trained in clinical, social, organizational or any other branch of psychology.[3] In the United States, the salient issue is the designation by the court as an expert witness by training, experience or both by the judge. Generally, a forensic psychologist is designated as an expert in a particular jurisdiction. The number of jurisdictions in which a forensic psychologist qualifies as an expert increases with experience and reputation.

Questions asked by the court of a forensic psychologist are generally not questions regarding psychology but are legal questions and the response must be in language the court understands. For example, a forensic psychologist is frequently appointed by the court to assess a defendant's competency to stand trial. The court also frequently appoints a forensic psychologist to assess the state of mind of the defendant at the time of the offense. This is referred to as an evaluation of the defendant's sanity or insanity (which relates to criminal responsibility) at the time of the offense.[4] These are not primarily psychological questions but rather legal ones. Thus, a forensic psychologist must be able to translate psychological information into a legal framework.[5]

Forensic psychologists also provide sentencing recommendations, treatment recommendations, and any other information the judge requests, such as information regarding mitigating factors, assessment of future risk, and evaluation of witness credibility. Forensic psychology also involves training and evaluating police or other law enforcement personnel, providing law enforcement with criminal profiles and in other ways working with police departments. Forensic psychologists work both with the Public Defender, the States Attorney, and private attorneys. Forensic psychologists may also help with jury selection.[6]

Forensic psychology practice

The forensic psychologist views the client or defendant from a different point of view than does a traditional clinical psychologist. Seeing the situation from the client's point of view or "empathizing" is not the forensic psychologist's task. Traditional psychological tests and interview procedure are not sufficient when applied to the forensic situation. In forensic evaluations, it is important to assess the consistency of factual information across multiple sources. Forensic evaluators must be able to provide the source on which any information is based. Unlike more traditional applications of clinical psychology, informed consent is not required when the assessment is ordered by the court. Instead, the defendant simply needs to be notified regarding the purpose of the evaluation and the fact that he or she will have no control over how the information obtained is used.[7] While psychologists infrequently have to be concerned about malingering or feigning illness in a non-criminal clinical setting, a forensic psychologist must be able to recognize exaggerated or faked symptoms. Malingering exists on a continuum so the forensic psychologist must be skilled in recognizing varying degrees of feigned symptoms.[8]


Ethical implications

A forensic psychologist generally practices within the confines of the courtroom, incarceration facilities, and other legal setting. It is important to remember that the forensic psychologist is equally likely to be testifying for the prosecution as for the defense attorney. A forensic psychologist does not take a side, as do the psychologists described below.[9] The ethical standards for a forensic psychologist differ from those of a clinical psychologist or other practicing psychologist because the forensic psychologist is not an advocate for the client and nothing the client says is guaranteed to be kept confidential. This makes evaluation of the client difficult, as the forensic psychologist needs and wants to obtain certain information while it is often not in the client's best interest to provide it. The client has no control over how that information is used.[10] Despite the signing of a waiver of confidentiality, most clients do not realize the nature of the evaluative situation.[11] Furthermore, the interview techniques differ from those typical of a clinical psychologist and require an understanding of the criminal mind and criminal and violent behavior.[12] For example, even indicating to a defendant being interviewed that an effort will be made to get the defendant professional help may be grounds for excluding the expert's testimony.[13]

In addition, the forensic psychologist deals with a range of clients unlike those of the average practicing psychologist. Because the client base is by and large criminal, the forensic psychologist is immersed in an abnormal world.[14] As such, the population evaluated by the forensic psychologist is heavily weighted with specific personality disorders.[15][16][17]

The typical grounds for malpractice suits also apply to the forensic psychologist, such as wrongful commitment, inadequate informed consent, duty and breach of duty, and standards of care issues. Some situations are more clear cut for the forensic psychologist. The duty to warn, which is mandated by many states, is generally not a problem because the client or defendant has already signed a release of information, unless the victim is not clearly identified and the issue of the identifiability of the victim arises. However, in general the forensic psychologist is less likely to encounter malpractice suits than a clinical psychologist. The forensic psychologist does have some additional professional liability issues. As mentioned above, confidentiality in a forensic setting is more complicated that in a clinical setting as the client or defendant is apt to misinterpret the limits of confidentiality despite being warned and signing a release.[18]

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. Nietzel, Michael (1986). Psychological Consultation in the Courtroom, New York: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-030955-0.
  2. Blau, Theodore H. (1984). The Psychologist as Expert Witness, pp 19-25, New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-87129-X.
  3. Speciality Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists. URL accessed on 2007-09-14.
  4. Grisso, Thomas (1988). Competency to Stand Trial Evaluations: A Manual for Practice, 1988, Sarasota FL: Professional Resource Exchange.
  5. Shapiro, David L. (1984). 'Psychological Evaluation and Expert Testimony', New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
  6. Smith, Steven R. (1988). Law, Behavior, and Mental Health: Policy and Practice, New York: New York University Press.
  7. Forensic Mental Health Assessment: A Casebook. Oxford University Press. URL accessed on 2007-10-12.
  8. Addressing The Issue of Malingering Within Forensic Assessment:. URL accessed on 2007-10-12.
  9. Brodsky, Stanley L. (1991). Testifying in Court: Guidelines and Maxims for the Expert Witness, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  10. Datz, Albert J. (1989). ABA Criminal Justice Mental Health Standards, Washington DC: American Bar Association.
  11. Gary, Melton (1997). Psychological Evaluations for the Courts: A Handbook for Mental Health Professionals and Lawyers, 2nd, 41–45, New York: The Guilford Press.
  12. Toch, Hans (1992). Violent Men: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Violence, Washington, DC: The American Psychological Association.
  13. Blau, Theodore. The Psychologist as Expert Witness, 26, Wiley and Sons. URL accessed 2008-01-23.
  14. Toch, Hans (1989). The Disturbed Violent Offender, New York: Yale University Press.
  15. Cleckley, Hervey (1982). The Mask of Sanity, New York: Plume Publishing.
  16. Millon, Theodore (1996). Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond, New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  17. Meloy, J. Reid (1996). The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
  18. Shapiro, David L. (1991). Forensic Psychological Assessment: An Integrative Approach, Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

Further reading

Key texts


  • Adler, J. R. (Ed.). (2004). Forensic Psychology: Concepts, debates and practice. Cullompton: Willan.
  • Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (1999). History of Forensic Psychology. In A. K. Hess & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of Forensic Psychology (2nd ed., ). London: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Blackburn, R. (1996). What is forensic psychology? Legal and Criminological Psychology. 1996 Feb; Vol 1(Part 1) 3-16 .
  • Dalby, J. T. (1997) Applications of Psychology in the Law Practice: A guide to relevant issues, practices and theories. Chicago: American Bar Association.
  • Duntley, J. D., & Shackelford, T. K. (2006). Toward an evolutionary forensic psychology. Social Biology, 51, 161-165. Full text
  • Gudjonsson, G. (1991). Forensic psychology - the first century. Journal of forensic psychiatry, 2(2), 129.
  • G.H. Gudjonsson and Lionel Haward: Forensic Psychology. A guide to practice. (1998) ISBN 0-415-13291-6 (pbk.), ISBN 0-415-13290-8 (hbk.)
  • Huss, M.T. (2008). Forensic Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 9781405151382
  • Ogloff, J. R. P., & Finkelman, D. (1999). Psychology and Law: An Overview. In R. Roesch, S. D. Hart, & J. R. P. Ogloff (Eds.), Psychology and Law the State of the Discipline . New York: Kluwer Academic Press.
  • Sexton, Ellen (2004). Resources for forensic psychology: a selective bibliography. Reference Services Review, Volume 32, Number 2,pp. 195-210(16)


Additional material


  • Canter, D. V. and Alison, L.J. (2000). The Social Psychology of Crime.


External links

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