You may have heard about forensic psychologists or forensic psychology, but what exactly is this? What does this mean and what do forensic psychologists do?
What is Forensic Psychology?
Forensic psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with aspects of the law and the overlap between psychology and the law. The most common areas of forensic psychology are the areas of criminal psychology and then the overlap between psychology and family law as well as injuries due to negligence and then civil claims.
The American Psychological Association describes forensic psychology as the application of clinical specialities to the legal arena. Furthermore, it is the psychological assessment and treatment of individuals who are involved with the legal system in one way or another.
The Australian Psychological Society goes on to explain that forensic psychologists use their legal and psychological knowledge to assist individuals to navigate the legal and criminal justice system.
Scientifically based principles and measurements are used to assess the individual and compile a report which is then used in court. It is important to remember that when a court case is involved or a report is needed from your psychologist for court, confidentiality cannot be maintained as you engaged in a legal process and have consented as such.
Let us have a closer look at criminal law and psychology.
Criminal Law and Psychology
With regards to criminal psychology and working within the forensic population, psychologists may assess and treat offenders.
· Treatment may include psychotherapy and assisting the offender to rehabilitate themselves and reduce recidivism.
· Assessments can include criminal capacity assessments (fitness and responsibility assessments) whereby the psychologist assesses whether the alleged offender knew the difference between right and wrong at the time of the alleged offence and was he/she able to act in accordance with this possibly due to a mental illness. The psychologist will also assess whether the alleged offender is fit to stand trial. This involves the examination of various factors and is often referred to as the insanity plea in a courtroom.
· Alleged offenders may also require a forensic assessment for sentencing. This is known as a pre-sentencing report. A pre-sentencing report includes information about the defendant that may be relevant to their sentencing and assists the court in looking at the bigger picture with regards to details that may have contributed towards the criminal offence and offers recommendations for the improved rehabilitation of the offender. This is when an individual has been found guilty of an offence but requires the psychological report for mitigating circumstances to either motivate for a lessor or greater sentence.
Now moving on to family law and the overlap with psychology.
Family Law and Psychology
In the realm of family law, forensic psychologists may assist with custody disputes and assess parenting capacity. They would assess the family and make recommendations for a parenting plan, shared custody, and advocate for the voice of the child and assess the best interests of the child.
Samenow (2020) states that forensic psychologists serve as neutral evaluators in domestic disputes over divorce, child custody and visitation. He further states that these types of reports are usually required when nearly everything else has failed to produce a settlement (such as reconciliation and mediation).
The objective of the assessment and report is to understand each parents’ personalities, strengths, and weaknesses as a parent. The process involves an assessment of their mental health as well as their child-rearing practices and capacity and their willingness to foster their child’s relationship with the other parent (Samenow, 2020). The assessment also involves an assessment of the child ad their relationship with the parent. It would also evaluate for parental alienation and coaching.
It is important to have a letter from the court or your lawyer/attorney advising exactly what is needed for your assessment and report. Each assessment is unique and will depend on what you require for the purposes of court. If you are unsure of the process or would like more information, please feel free to book in with Dr Pauline Baleta.
Author: Dr Pauline Baleta, MA Psychology (UJ) Cum Laude, PhD Psychology (UP)
Dr Pauline Baleta can assist with pre-sentencing reports, assessment of fitness and responsibility as well as reports for custody disputes and to assist with parenting plans. To make an appointment, try Online Booking, alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422
- American Psychological Association
- Australian Psychological Society
- Samenow, S.E. (2020, December 3). What a forensic psychologist does in a child custody case. Obtained from the World Wide Web: