Forensic Psychology

Forensic Psychology:

  1. the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system;
  2. professional conduct when acting as a psychological expert on psycho-legal issues, in direct assistance to courts, parties to legal proceedings, and/or judicial, administrative and correctional agencies;
  3.  a specialty within clinical psychology
  • The purpose of these services is to assist the court, attorneys, individuals or families in dealing with legal matters: the defense or prosecution of criminal cases, civil commitment proceedings, civil litigation (e.g., personal injury, employment matters), or family law matters (divorce, custody, parenting time or dispute resolution).
  • Forensic Psychologist: a psychologist who regularly engages in the practice of Forensic Psychology.

Forensic Psychological Assessment:

  • Psychological Assessment: scientific methods employed by psychologists for the purpose of understanding and explaining an individual’s, couple’s or family’s psychological functioning.
  • Helps to define and understand personality, behavior, emotions, intelligence, and how they come together.
  • Such assessments help to answer diagnostic questions, to specify a person’s strengths, weaknesses and personality structure, and to explain and to predict behavior.
  • The overall goal: to provide the basis for inferring antecedent and dynamic factors that can help to explain specific actions, and to make recommendations pertinent to the legal issues at hand.

Forensic psychological assessment is an in-depth process employing:

  • Interviews (Usually multiple interviews). Include a mental status exam, psychosocial history
  • The administration of standardized psychological tests (which produce reliable, valid and reproducible results)
  • To be comprehensive, an assessment needs to examine a range of psychological factors:
    • cognitive and personality functioning
    • developmental history
    • interpersonal relationships
  • These factors can be further broken down into emotional, cognitive, intellectual, developmental, executive, educational, social, organic, neuropsychological, and physiological functioning.

Benefits of Psychological Assessment

  • Assessment which includes psychological testing allows the evaluator
    • to corroborate interview data and clinical impressions
    • to go beyond the interview and collect broader, in-depth, and more complex kinds information.
  • Standardized psychological assessment has a normative, statistical scientific basis. It compares the individual against data collected in samples of normal and clinically disordered individuals. It allows the evaluator to determine how similar or dissimilar this person is to persons in these samples.
  • Individuals may attempt to “look good” or “look bad” in interview depending on the case.
  • Most test instruments contain (multiple) validity scales on which to assess the extent to which the individual is providing honest, candid, defensive, socially desirable, or exaggerated depictions of their psychological health or symptoms.

Criminal Forensic Assessment

  • Mental State
    • Mens rea: Did the person know that the act or omission was illegal or prohibited?
    • Does the defendant suffer from a mental disorder?
    • Psychological Influences at the time and the scene of the alleged crime.
  • Diminished capacity:  whether or not a person was able to “form the specific, or “requisite intent’ (or “know”) to commit the alleged crime.
  • Competency:  does the defendant understand the proceedings against them? Is the defendant able to assist their attorney in their defense?
  • Mitigating Circumstances:  was the defendant’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions impaired (other than by voluntary use of alcohol or drugs)?
  • Violence risk assessment
  • Competency to Waive Miranda Rights
  • Sex Offender Evaluation and risk assessment
  • Juvenile Evaluation

Civil Forensic Assessment

  • Personal Injury
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Auto accident: PTSD and Brain Damage
  • Employment
  • Discrimination: Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Fitness for Duty
  • Family Law
    • Child Custody Evaluation
    • Alienated Children
    • Re-unification
    • Mediation
    • Parenting Coordination
    • Termination of Parental Rights

APA Guidelines for Forensic Psychology

Guidelines differ from standards, such as those in the APA’s Ethics Code, in that they are aspirational rather than mandatory. They are intended to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and facilitate a high level of practice by psychologists, rather than being intended to serve as a basis for disciplinary action or civil or criminal liability.  Here are excerpts from the APA Forensic Psychology Guidelines (see the link to the full document below):

2.05 Knowledge of the Scientific Foundation for Opinions and Testimony: Forensic practitioners seek to provide opinions and testimony that are sufficiently based upon adequate scientific foundation, and reliable and valid principles and methods that have been applied appropriately to the facts of the case. When providing opinions and testimony that are based on novel or emerging principles and methods, forensic practitioners seek to make known the status and limitations of these principles and methods.

2.08 Appreciation of Individual and Group Differences:Forensic practitioners strive to understand how factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, socioeconomic status, or other relevant individual and cultural differences may affect and be related to the basis for people’s contact and involvement with the legal system.

6.03 Communication with Forensic Examinees: Forensic practitioners inform examinees about the nature and purpose of the examination, … including potential consequences of participation or non-participation, if known.

10.01 Focus on Legally Relevant Factors: Forensic practitioners are encouraged to consider the problems that may arise by using a clinical diagnosis in some forensic contexts, and consider and qualify their opinions and testimony appropriately.

11.04 Comprehensive and Accurate Presentation of Opinions in Reports and Testimony: Forensic practitioners are encouraged to limit discussion of background information that does not bear directly upon the legal purpose of the examination or consultation. Forensic practitioners avoid offering information that is irrelevant and that does not provide a substantial basis of support for their opinions, except when required by law.

Guidelines for the Practice of Forensic Psychology

APA (American Psychological Association) Forensic Psychology Specialty Guidelines

APA Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluations

AFCC (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts) Model Guidelines for Child Custody Evaluation

APA Guidelines for Child Protection Matters

APA Guidelines for the Practice of Parenting Coordination

AFCC Guidelines for Parenting Coordination

AFCC Guidelines for Court-Involved Therapy



The most important document in dealing with ethical issues in the practice of psychology is the  American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code.  This defines the ethical principles and code of conduct of psychologists, and is the standard applied by the state licensing boards and the ethics committees of the APA and its state organizations, such as the Michigan Psychological Association to determine if a psychologist has behaved in an ethical or an unethical fashion.

I would also refer the interested reader to Ken Pope Ph.D.’s website for a good deal of information on the ethics of psychology.  Ken is the author, with Melba Vasquez, Ph.D. of Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide, (Fourth Edition, 2011, Jossey-Bass).