The Forensic Psychology Expert Witness Guide

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

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— Updated on June 25, 2020

The Forensic Psychology Expert Witness Guide

Doctor is writing a prescription

Forensic psychologists apply skills in clinical psychology to legal matters. Often, this means offering clinical evaluations of people who are in some way involved in the legal system, such as those facing criminal charges or who are a party in a civil matter.

Nearly all cases involving a forensic psychologist will rely heavily on the forensic psychologist’s report. For this reason, choosing a qualified forensic psychologist whose work is clear and thorough is essential. Understanding the generally-accepted qualifications of forensic psychologists, the types of cases in which they commonly participate, and other key issues can help attorneys make more informed decisions when seeking the help of a forensic psychologist.

Qualifications for Expert Witnesses in Forensic Psychology

Generally speaking, forensic psychology expert witnesses are expected to have a doctorate in clinical psychology and experience in the practice of clinical or forensic psychology. Often, these experts work (or have worked) as psychologists or clinical directors.

They may specialize in certain subfields, such as child psychology, substance use disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder, in their clinical practice. Seeking a forensic psychologist expert witness with a specialized background can be highly valuable for cases in which an evaluee’s age or mental health history is at issue.

In addition to these formal qualifications, forensic psychologist expert witnesses need a thorough understanding of storytelling and rhetoric, including the effects of including or omitting certain details from their reports.

Forensic psychology reports differ in one key fashion from the reports of other types of expert witnesses. For many experts, the report documents tasks or steps the expert has performed in the search for understanding. For instance, a materials scientist asked to analyze an allegedly defective bolt will perform certain laboratory tests, the results of which are written down in the report.

For forensic psychologists, the report is not a documentation of outside practices. Rather, it is the reason the expert is hired: To make professional opinions and assessments understandable to non-psychology professionals like attorneys and judges.

Consequently, choosing a forensic psychologist with clear storytelling skills is essential. In addition, the forensic psychologist requires a keen understanding of how to write persuasive, descriptive accounts of evaluee’s behavior and affect.

Which Types of Cases Benefit from Forensic Psychology Expert Assistance?

Typically, forensic psychologists are asked to perform clinical evaluations to determine an individual’s competence to stand trial or their mental capacity. For example, a forensic psychologist may be consulted to determine whether an individual met state or federal standards for legal insanity at the time of their alleged crime, or to evaluate whether an individual was of “sound mind” required to legally create a will or estate plan.

Forensic psychologists are also asked to consult and testify on sentencing recommendations, treatment recommendations, and evaluations of future risk. Their input is valuable whenever an individual’s legal capacity or responsibility is at issue, including situations in which an individual is suspected to be malingering or feigning symptoms of a mental or emotional disorder.

Key Considerations When Retaining a Forensic Psychologist

The written report is often central to a forensic psychologist’s work. According to the American Bar Association, the forensic psychology report has become increasingly formalized over the past 40 years. Today, a number of guidelines and checklists exist that help forensic psychologists and attorneys implement best practices to organize, understand and standardize these reports.

Attorneys working with forensic psychologists need not only to discuss confidentiality with their chosen expert but also to understand confidentiality from the psychologist’s and patient’s point of view. For instance, a forensic psychology report will often contain information explaining the limits of confidentiality. The forensic psychologist performing the evaluation must often explain to the person being evaluated that their written report and/or oral testimony may be submitted based on their evaluation. In some instances, this may occur whether or not the evaluated person consents to the evaluation.

As with any expert witness, an understanding of applicable expert witness standards, the process of providing testimony, and confidentiality and work-product standards are valuable. Clarifying the scope and nature of the expert’s services via a written agreement can help both the forensic psychologist and the attorney’s team create a foundation for a productive work relationship.

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