The Clinical Psychologist in Court

by Dr. Lynette Roux

The concept of the psychologist playing a role as an expert witness in the court is not a new one.  For decades psychologists have been viewed both positively and negatively by the courts.

More recently, the psychologist has been recognised as being able to assist the court and being able to provide insight into the psychological functioning of people.  This includes providing valuable information into the functioning of children and adults within the various areas of psycho-legal work being medico-legal, criminal, family-law as well as abuse.

A relatively new area of psycho-legal work is that of mediation.  The value that psychologists in mediation, including parenting co-ordination, can offer is increasingly being recognised by the courts.  Furthermore, the legal profession as a whole is increasingly relying on psychologists to assist in helping people to find more reconciliatory ways, and less adversarial approaches to resolving disputes.

Clinical Psychologists, in particular, offer a particular insight to the court.  The value of being able to provide expert opinion on psychopathology and or neurological deficits, and the impact this has on the person’s functioning, as well as on those within the person’s sphere of influence is of particular value.

Within the area of family law the courts are tasked with considering what is in the children’s best interests.  Information on attachments, parenting skills, and developmental theory is vitally important when considering what is in the children’s best interests.  Within the criminal courts factors such as society’s right to be protected, the importance of justice being seen to have been done as well as the offenders need for rehabilitation all need to be considered.

The clinical psychologist in particular can be helpful in addressing these aspects and advising the courts.  Perhaps the greatest value of the clinical psychologist in the criminal courts is, however, to challenge the court to find new ways to address the various aspects listed above in a more successful manner, as reoffending, or recidivism, remains of particular concern.

Victim impact reports and evidence is also of great assistance to courts when determining that which is in victims’ best interests and their needs.  In child abuse cases this is particularly necessary, and psychologists are best suited to informing the court in this regard.

The role of the psychologist is however, not to ‘fight the case’ for a client.  The psychologist is there to give the court information of a psychological nature that the court would otherwise not be alert to.  Therefore, no matter in what area of psychological work the psychologist is working, the psychologist’s responsibility lies within the court.