What is forensic psychology?

Forensic psychology is a very broad concept, with many sub-divisions. Most people associate it with profiling serial murderers or psychologists who help the police solve cases. In reality, this is a very small part of forensic psychology (often referred to as investigative psychology), done by a very small group of specialist psychologists internationally, and even fewer locally. In fact, most law enforcement profilers are not psychologists at all, and are usually experienced investigators. We use the term forensic psychology any time psychology is playing some role in relation to the justice system. This can range from the criminal justice system where psychology can play a role in interviewing victims of crime or suspects, offender profiling, hostage negotiation, or investigative guidance, and it can include assessments in civil trials such as medical-negligence, or family law issues.

One of the most common areas that psychologists play a role in the justice system is as an expert witness in court, whether it be a criminal case or civil case. Here the evidence they can provide in civil cases ranges from assessments to help determine neurological impairment after a vehicle accident, to assessments relating to ‘custody’ of children in divorce cases. In the criminal justice system expert assessments can range from helping determine if someone can be held responsible for their actions (criminal capacity), to whether someone can be put on trial (competency to stand trial), to helping courts determine what to do with an accused after they have been found guilty (sentencing reports), to risk assessments.

Forensic Psychology in South Africa

At this point in time in South Africa psychologists cannot refer to themselves as ‘forensic psychologists’ because the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) does not have such a registration (licensing) category. So, while many psychologists are legitimately performing ‘forensic’ psychology services, they (by law) have to refer to themselves in terms of their registration category at the HPCSA. Those categories are Clinical, Counselling, Educational, Industrial and Research. According to the Ethical Guidelines of the HPCSA, all psychologists must indicate their registration category on their formal documentation such as emails, reports, and business cards. In fact, any time that you see the word ‘psychologist’ it must be prefixed with the psychologist’s registration category, eg Clinical Psychologist.

How do I choose the right ‘forensic’ psychologist?

Ideally who you choose should be guided by a few factors. Firstly, and most importantly, what is the legal issue at this point in time? The psychologist is supposed to be helping solve a legal issue. For example, at sentencing the psychologist is assisting the court in determining what the court should do with a convicted person; are they a risk to society? What are they at risk for? Can that risk be lowered?

The second aspect is to choose a psychologist with a proven track-record (training, knowledge and experience) in the specific issue or area that you need help in. An expert is someone who knows more than their peers about a specific issue or area. This you would see from their CV- do they have additional training in that issue or area? How many similar cases have they dealt with? Have they conducted research in that area, and/or published in academic journals or textbooks about that issue? Do they speak at academic conferences about that particular issue or area? Normally television appearances or mentions in newspapers do not qualify a person as an expert in a field. You should also ask the psychologist what their registration category is (eg Clinical, Counselling, Educational) and whether the issue falls within their scope of practice (and expertise).

Finally, the lawyer dealing with the matter needs to approach the psychologist and contract them to assist. The psychologist needs to make sure that they are available to complete the assessment and appear on the court dates. Fees needs to be clearly determined and agreed to up-front. The psychologist needs to be clear that they don’t tailor-make opinions to suit the person contracting them, as an expert is there to assist the court, and not to advance the cause of a particular party. Essentially what this means is that the psychologist’s opinion should be the same no matter if they were to be called by one side or the other in a legal matter.