The Forensic Psychologist’s Role in the Litigation Process

Expert WitnessesThe Expert Witness

Forensic psychologists often lend their expertise and clinical skills in the realm of law enforcement and litigation, and one of the most common ways to do this is by appearing as an expert witness in court proceedings. For the most part, it doesn’t matter who calls them, whether it’s the plaintiff or defendant, the prosecution or defense. A psychologist’s testimony favors nobody, and is based purely on facts.

What is an expert witness, and how do they different from ordinary witnesses? When a particular person’s character comes into question, significant people in the person’s life are often called to the stand to testify for or against the person’s character.

The problem is, ordinary witnesses are often biased. If the person is a friend of the defendant, for example, he will say positive things about the defendant’s character. If the witness is an enemy of the defendant, they’re more likely to say negative things.

A forensic psychologist is considered an expert witness because their evaluation of the person’s character is not based on opinion, but fact. The expert witness makes use of their training, knowledge and skill to arrive at a conclusion for the courts that is unbiased and free of manipulation.

Qualifications of an Expert Witness

Contrary to popular belief, not all forensic psychologists can become expert witnesses. To be an expert witness, a forensic psychologist needs to have the following qualifications:

  • A degree that’s relevant to the case at hand
  • Post-doctoral experience
  • Has written journals and publications about the subject
  • Proof of expertise and specialist knowledge about the subject
  • Previous experience in applying clinical skills to the subject at hand

For example, if the case involves a female employee suing her employer for emotional damages from sexual harassment, the forensic psychologist must have written publications sexual harassment in the workplace or something related to it. The psychologist must have previous experience in applying clinical diagnosis and treatment in sexual harassment cases.

Aside from professional requirements, expert witnesses must observe certain etiquette when in court. When a forensic psychologist is given a subpoena, it is their duty to learn the procedures of presenting evidence in court and the scope and limitations of disclosure. They may ask forensic psychologists who are more experienced in litigation, or obtain training manuals that they can learn from.

The Litigation Process

The involvement of a forensic psychologist in court starts when their services are requested by relevant parties. Forensic psychologists may be called in to act as expert witnesses in criminal and civil proceedings, as well as lawsuits. A forensic psychologist may be called in by an of the following parties:

  • The prosecutor
  • The defense
  • Plaintiff’s legal team
  • Insurance company
  • Litigants
  • Procurator fiscal
  • The court

Most of the time, the expert witness will be called in by one party. However, there are times when both parties will agree on a single expert witness. The forensic psychologist reports to the person who requested them. In no way are they obligated to disclose information to the opposing counsel prior to their taking of the witness stand. If it is a joint expert system, the psychologist reports all information and findings to both sides. A forensic psychologist must only disclose information about the case to relevant parties, and are not allowed to talk to other expert witnesses unless given permission.

The forensic psychologist is then asked to sign a statement of compliance and truth. By signing these, a forensic psychologist promises to be unbiased and impartial with their statements. The forensic psychologist should disclose beforehand if there is anything preventing them from an impartial testimony, such as conflict of interest or withholding of pay dependent upon the outcome of the case. In such cases, the forensic psychologist will be taken off the case and a new one put in their place.

A forensic psychologist should observe court etiquette and act accordingly, as they are representing the entire profession. Good etiquette includes being punctual, dressing appropriately for court, and remaining silent while other witnesses give their testimonies.

On The Witness Stand

When a forensic psychologist is first called in to stand as an expert witness, they are given the opportunity to gather information about the case at hand. For example, if during a criminal proceeding the defense pleads insanity, the forensic psychologist is given enough time to meet with the defendant to confirm whether the insanity plea is valid or not.

Forensic psychologists use clinical knowledge to interpret the defendant’s actions and evaluate whether or not they are the actions of a sane person or not. They usually meet with the defendant more than once to gain a better understanding of their mental health. The conduct tests, review medical history and dig up any pertinent information that will assist in arriving at an accurate testimony.

As expert witnesses, forensic psychologists are expected to draw conclusions based on fact, give possible outcomes and events, and explain certain behaviors to the court for reference. Their expert views on matters pertaining to fault, damages and negligence are also sought out.

All written and physical evidence, like reports and other documents are surrendered to the relevant parties beforehand. What the forensic psychologist contributes once they take the stand is their oral evidence, which must coincide with the physical and written evidence.

Learn how much education forensic psychologists must have