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WHAT IS FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY?

Forensic psychology is the application of psychological science at the interface between psychology and the law. In short, any psychological service provided specifically to the legal community is a forensic psychological service. Forensic psychologists typically have expertise in other disciplines of psychology, such as clinical or counseling psychology, and thus provide services in their professional work that are clinical in nature, in addition to providing forensic consultation.

Not all services provided by forensic psychologists involve forensic consultation. When a psychologist provides therapy or counseling to treat the emotional trauma of an individual who was involved in a terrible accident, that treatment is basically clinical in nature. But when the psychologist is asked to assess the emotional trauma to the individual caused by the accident for the purpose of providing a professional opinion in a lawsuit concerning the accident, the psychologist is providing forensic assessment and consultation.

Forensic psychology can thus be defined simply as assessment and consultation specifically intended to assist members of the legal community, by informing lawyers, judges, and juries about the psychological aspects of a family, civil, or criminal matter. Not all psychological services that end up in court strictly satisfy this definition. For example, if a clinical psychologist is subpoenaed to testify in court or in a deposition about various opinions and factual matters, perhaps against his or her will and contrary to his or her better professional judgment, that is not forensic psychology. Although the testimony would be forensic in nature, it is not strictly forensic psychology because, from the psychologist’s viewpoint, the testimony is incidental, unintended, and often unanticipated.

WHAT IS A FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGIST?

A forensic psychology practitioner is someone who deliberately becomes professionally involved in legal matters. A forensic psychologist knows from the start of a legal matter that his or her services will be used by attorneys and judges to help resolve legal questions where psychological opinions are relevant, and helpful – such as child custody litigations, sexual abuse and harassment claims.

A forensic practitioner has to acquire skills and knowledge in addition to the normal clinical skills. In states with psychologist licensing rules similar to the laws in Texas, a forensic psychologist must meet special standards of care and follow special guidelines in gathering psychological data and formulating psychological opinions. These requirements are in addition to the requirements to satisfy all the professional and scientific requirements that apply to the psychologist’s area(s) of clinical expertise. The forensic psychologist must have a detailed and specific consultation plan that goes somewhat beyond what is typically necessary for clinical practice. Forensic psychologists must also take special care to circumscribe their professional consultations to those areas where they have demonstrated competence by virtue of specific training, experience, and/or certification.

A forensic psychologist’s findings and opinions must ordinarily relate directly to the particular legal issues of each case. Consequently, the forensic psychologist must have a working knowledge of key legal principles that touch upon mental health, such as “best interest of the child,” “mental competency”, and “criminal intent.” The forensic psychologist must also have a basic knowledge about legal procedure and the “culture” of the legal community, in order to communicate effectively with lawyers, judges, and other court-related personnel. Finally, a forensic psychologist must have exceptional skills in helping lawyers, judges, and sometimes jurors understand the often difficult psychological concepts that are relevant to the legal issues of the situation.

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