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Ethics in Forensic Psychology

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Forensic psychology is the study of human psychology as it relates to the criminal justice system. In practice, forensic psychologists determine whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, evaluate witness credibility and advise other legal professionals on psychological matters.

As with other legal professions, forensic psychology often involves difficult ethical decisions.

 

Forensic Psychology

 

Function

Forensic psychology provides a way for the criminal justice system to receive expert advice on psychological matters. Forensic psychologists are called upon as expert witnesses in trials to advise the judge and jury about the psychological soundness of defendants and witnesses.

They make recommendations based on knowledge of psychology, clinical interviews, psychological tests and legal expertise.

 

Dilemmas

Because the expert testimony and recommendations of forensic psychologists influence criminal trial outcomes, many ethical considerations come into play. First, psychologists must maintain a professional relationship with their clients, so they must never be both expert witness and therapist.

Psychologists must also take careful notes, thoroughly document tests and understand the need for confidentiality. Economic issues involving source and amount of payment for services rendered are also an ethical concern.

 

Guidelines

All forensic psychologists should adhere to the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct. Specific issues relating to the practice of forensic psychology are discussed in the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists.

Forensic psychologists should familiarize themselves with these documents and understand the ethical and legal implications of possible misconduct.

 

Misconceptions

Some legal professionals attempt to discredit the expert testimony of forensic psychologists, arguing their profession is based on conjecture and inference, not fact. To counter these claims, forensic psychologists must have a firm understanding of local, state and federal laws pertaining to their cases.

Failure to understand the laws may cause a forensic psychologist to make false recommendations or give misleading expert testimony. These ethical breaches have potentially serious consequences.

 

Considerations

Impartiality must always guide forensic psychologists in all criminal investigations. Although the role of a lawyer is to advocate for a particular client, a forensic psychologist must always offer unbiased recommendations based solely upon knowledge of psychology and the law.

This remains true even when a legal team has hired the psychologist to provide expert testimony. The psychologist must remain neutral, never advocating on behalf of any client.

 

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