TV and cinema have shaped public misconceptions about daily life as a forensic psychologist and the invaluable part they play in the criminal justice system. To help separate fact from fiction we spoke with our team of experts about the duties, demands and rewards of working as a forensic psychologist, and here we share some of their thoughts.
First thing’s first – what does a forensic psychologist do?
“Forensic psychologists play a unique role in the legal and justice system. Their job can involve undertaking a variety of tasks, including: counselling victims of a crime, evaluating child custody, death notification procedures, competency evaluations of criminal defendants, and evaluation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Such tasks ensure that both criminals and victims are treated fairly and help contribute to the running of the legal system.
“Forensic psychology is the application of psychology to legal and criminal matters. Forensic psychologists study criminals and their crimes to make inferences and draw conclusions about the personality traits of perpetrators and therefore assist in criminal profiling.”
What is the difference between forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry?
“It’s really important not to confuse the two. The key difference between forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry is that a forensic psychiatrist will have extensive medical training and the authority to prescribe drugs and section someone, but a forensic psychologist does not have this authority.
“While both practices involve the interaction of mental health and the legal system, they are entirely different fields with different educational backgrounds, requirements, and approaches to mental health. This is because forensic psychology looks at the way that the brain behaves, e.g. in response to trauma, from a functioning point of view. Forensic psychologists use various therapies, including talking therapies, to determine the root cause of a person’s problem and teach them skills for coping. Forensic psychiatry, however, looks at the brain from a medical point of view. Forensic psychiatrists will know about the chemical interactions in the brain and how medication can treat imbalances and problems.”
What are the most rewarding aspects of working as a forensic psychologist?
“The field of forensic psychology offers a diverse career path. Forensic psychologists can work in either the public or the private sector, but ultimately the profession involves helping others, which can be considered as one of the most fulfilling aspects of the job. The field presents itself as both a challenging and stimulating environment. It often includes high-wire work and can be exhilarating in some situations.
“Another up-side to the profession is that there is a high degree of satisfaction at the end of a successful case. In addition to this, you will possess concrete skills in interpreting the relationship between psychological issues and the law. This provides some status in legal settings, which can in turn make you more employable.
“It may not necessarily be the glamourised, glitzy role that you see portrayed in crime dramas, but forensic psychology is an engaging profession and one which forensic psychologists can be passionate about.”
What are the most challenging aspects of working as a forensic psychologist?
“It goes without saying that the job can be extremely stressful. It can be difficult to work day in and day out dealing with the problems of defendants and offenders, and then trying to be objective when analysing their state of mind.
“As a forensic psychologist, you can often work long hours. These hours can involve an array of problem solving and emotionally-draining and challenging work, all whilst working to meet deadlines and ensuring that all decisions and procedures are fair. It can also take a long time to become qualified as a forensic psychologist, particularly a chartered forensic psychologist.”
What are the most common requests from a criminal defence perspective?
“Common requests for our services mainly includes fitness to stand trial. Fitness to stand trial, also known as fitness to plead, is the principle that if someone suffers from a severe disability they may not be fit to participate in the trial process. This principle was introduced by the Court of Appeal in 1836.
“We also receive a significant number of requests for assessment of capacity. This involves looking at whether or not a person has the mental capacity to make their own decisions – big or small, simple or complex. This principle was introduced by the Mental Health Capacity Act 2005, which came into force in 2007.
“Other common requests are varied, but can include assessing: behavioural difficulties, personality disorders, learning difficulties and mental health.
“In Crown Court proceedings, defence lawyers often need to solicit more information from an expert, such as a psychologist or a psychiatrist. There would need to be at least two medical experts who prepare reports. The judge will then decide if the defendant is fit to plead and may ask the experts to come to court to answer questions.
“If the judge decides that a defendant is unfit to stand trial, a jury will be asked to decide if the defendant committed the acts the prosecution are claiming they have done. If the defendant is found to have committed the act, they will not receive a criminal conviction but could receive a hospital order, supervision order or absolute discharge.
How has the impact of Covid (and lockdowns) affected your work?
“Pressures from Covid have resulted in less time to conduct assessments. Half hour tests are being carried out in place of two hour assessments, due to time constraints and the courts wanting to reduce the number of people on remand. Additionally, in situations where interviews will have been conducted remotely, important aspects of the assessment such as eye contact and body language cues could have been missed. There are also people who may warrant more time to have their interviews conducted, such as younger adolescents.
“Video hearings have seen clients react in a variety of ways, including clients with a paranoid personality disorder struggling with the lag between a video and someone’s voice. It is certainly true that forensic psychologists have had to work harder at making things accessible, with patients finding it strange, unfamiliar and difficult to engage with the person on the screen as opposed to staff in the room.”
What information is required when instructing a forensic psychologist with Forensic Access?
For psychology and psychiatry casework, we require the following information:
- Name of the client
- Age of the client – request Date of Birth
- Location of the client and where the assessment will take place
- What would like to be addressed (e.g. fitness to stand trial etc.)
Forensic Psychology Expertise
Forensic Access boasts a world-class team of forensic scientists operating in state-of-the-art facilities. All forensic work is carried out to the highest quality standards.
All defence work is supported by dedicated Casework Managers who provide end-to-end assistance and coordination. Direct access to our team of scientists helps barristers and solicitors prepare a more effective defence strategy, and all expert witness reports are thoroughly documented and peer reviewed.