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  • Writer's pictureSami Farhat

Understanding Forensic Psychology: Roles, Responsibilities, and Ethical Considerations

What we do and how we differ from clinical practice.

The brain and magnifying glass signifying how forensic psychologists look to discover the truth in criminal defendants

What is a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic psychology refers to the application of psychological knowledge and expertise to the law. Forensic psychologists work at various levels in the judicial process, including criminal, civil, and probate courts. Consequently, their roles can vary greatly depending on their individual scope of practice.

Roles and Responsibilities

One of the most common roles of forensic psychologists is to conduct evaluations to help answer legal questions. Common evaluations include:

  • Competency to Stand Trial: Determining if the defendant understands the proceedings and can assist in their defense.

  • Criminal Responsibility: Assessing whether a mental illness prevented the defendant from understanding their actions were wrong or conforming their conduct to the law.

  • Capacity to Waive Miranda: Assessing whether the defendant understood his or her Miranda Rights, including that they had the right to remain silent and the right to counsel.

Forensic vs. Clinical Psychology

A key difference between forensic and clinical psychologists is their primary client. Clinical psychologists typically provide therapy and assessments to help individuals voluntarily seeking services. In contrast, forensic psychologists provide objective opinions to legal decision-makers, such as judges and juries. In other words, the court (or referring attorney) is our client, and not the person we evaluate. This is a common deterrent for some, as our opinions may often be unhelpful to the defendant, and can play a role in important, life-altering outcomes. For example, an unfavorable criminal responsibility evaluation may result in a defendant being convicted and sentenced to prison. In certain jurisdictions where the death penalty is legal, forensic evaluations can contribute to a court’s decision to decide whether capital punishment is appropriate. Forensic psychologists do not advocate for the defendant. We advocate for our expert opinions.

Ethical Considerations and Informed Consent

Although there are several ways in which a forensic psychologist may be called to evaluate an individual, one of the most common sources is through direct referral and retainment from an attorney. This is another key difference between clinical and forensic practice, as the defendant themselves typically do not seek voluntary evaluation or treatment. In this regard, it is imperative for forensic practitioners to understand their code of ethics, as informed consent may be somewhat different from voluntary clinical services. This highlights an ethical distinction: informed consent in forensic settings differs from clinical settings. For example, if the court orders a defendant to be evaluated, then the evaluation will take place regardless of the defendant’s wishes, and confidentiality is not guaranteed. In fact, we inform defendants that things like confidentiality and informed consent are not applicable to these court-ordered evaluations, and that an opinion will be rendered regardless of their participation, cooperation, or desire to engage in the evaluation

Objective Evaluation and Malingering

Whereas clinicians, to some extent, may accept the self-report of their clients and consider their feelings valid, forensic practitioners are typically more interested in objective truth. This is especially pertinent given the potential for malingering in forensic evaluations, which is significantly more common than in clinical settings.

Differences in Definitions

One of the most challenging aspects for those outside forensic work to understand is that our definitions are typically rooted in law rather than the DSM. For instance, when conducting an insanity evaluation, most jurisdictions across the United States use terms like "mental illness" or "mental disease or defect." While these terms might be broadly interpreted to mean any mental illness, they are actually narrowly defined at the state level. These definitions usually refer to substantial disorders of thought and mood that significantly impact judgment, behavior, or the capacity to recognize reality. In other words, the most common diagnoses under these legal definitions are typically schizophrenia-related conditions or bipolar disorders. Conditions such as anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, PTSD, or personality disorders generally do not qualify a defendant for any type of affirmative defense.

Capacity vs Willingness

One of the central tenants of forensic evaluations is capacity. In other words, we often assess whether the individual was capable of something, and not whether they were willing to do it. For example, we often consider whether a defendant's misconduct was rooted in an inability to control behavior, or whether it was simply a failure to control behavior. The distinction between these two poles can at times be narrow; however, we are focused on what an individual can do as opposed to what they actually do.

Expert Witness Role

Forensic psychologists often serve as expert witnesses, testifying in court to support their evaluations and opinions. This contrasts with clinical psychologists, who may be called as fact witnesses and do not provide forensic opinions.

Challenges and Rewards

While forensic psychology is an exciting and fulfilling career, it requires navigating additional stressors. Forensic practitioners must be knowledgeable of not only psychology, but must also be well-versed in the law, legal statutes, and legal precedents. Additionally, forensic practitioners write reports knowing that their work can and will be thoroughly scrutinized by legal professionals and other experts. For example, it is not uncommon for opposing counsel to retain their own experts, which often results in having to not only advocate for your opinion, but also to manage the stress associated with intense cross-examination during contested hearings. This requires its own skill set, including the ability to stay calm, composed, and articulate in the face of adversarial questioning.

However, while these challenges may deter some, they may similarly be exciting and attractive to others. Despite the inherent stress of working under scrutiny, it’s dynamic nature and opportunity to positively impact the legal system is a highly fulfilling and rewarding endeavor.

Sami Farhat, Ph.D.

Sami Farhat, Ph.D.

Forensic psychologist and owner of ForenPsych Evaluations


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