5 Ways A Forensic Psychologist Expert Witness Can Benefit A Criminal Defence Case

Think ‘forensic psychology’, and you may well remember the 1990’s TV crime drama ‘Cracker’. Thankfully, times have moved on, and forensic psychology is now a highly professional and rigorous scientific field that plays a central role in the resolution of many, often complex, civil and criminal cases. Whereas forensic medical experts will use their scientific knowledge of the human body to explain the physical aspects of what happened in a case, forensic psychologists will look for the early signs of cognitive illness, underlying motives, behaviour, and the future likelihood of re-offending by looking at mental health. Detailed analysis and testing carried out by forensic psychologists can make all the difference between a case that is unsuccessful and one that achieves justice and reduces the risk of future harm.

What is a forensic psychologist expert witness?

Forensic psychologist expert witnesses combine the latest psychological theory with criminal and civil cases to provide opinion in criminal and civil cases; as such, it is a specialist sub-field of psychology. A forensic psychologist may carry out a series of assessments to determine:

  • The mental health of an individual
  • Key psychological traits such as openness, attachment, cognitive abilities, and capacity of a client
  • The propensity of a client to anger/violence
  • Evidence of substance misuse
  • Factors that may have led to mental illness
  • Whether a person has a brain injury or cognitive impairment
  • Whether a person is likely to re-offend
  • Factors that need to be considered when sentencing
  • Recommendations for future treatment

Because forensic psychologists work in the field of law and psychology, they are easily able to converse with experts in both fields, explaining often detailed psychological concepts to those in the legal profession.  Their work is also very much research-based, allowing forensic psychologists to draw on psychology and criminal psychology studies in the same way a lawyer uses caselaw.  Relevant research is then included within expert reports drafted by forensic psychologists to add weight to their arguments and conclusions.

Forensic psychologists have a legal duty to the court to:

  • Provide an objective and comprehensive assessment
  • Act independently and not be influenced by the party who instructed them
  • Offer an impartial opinion based on specialist training

Forensic psychologists understand the importance of presenting their findings in the form of an expert report and presenting this to the court in a timely manner.  While detailed analysis cannot be rushed, experience forensic psychologists can quickly narrow in on the pertinent issues and help to ensure that justice is reached without unnecessary delay.

Why should I engage a forensic psychologist expert witness?

There are many reasons to engage a forensic psychologist expert witness.  It may be that proving mental illness or previous psychological trauma may be pivotal to a criminal defence case or to reduce the length of a prison sentence or avoid prison entirely.  In other cases, it may be that there is insufficient evidence to establish a motive, and hence a forensic psychologist is brought in to find out what made a person commit a crime.  It may be that to uncover a motive, a forensic psychologist may need to review a person’s mental health over their lifetime to look for any tell-tale signs of trauma.  It is often the case that in carrying out their detailed analysis of an individual, they are able to find evidence of undiagnosed mental illness, which due to lack of treatment, has gone on to incur serious implications in the form of committing a crime.

Another aspect to consider is whether an accused is vulnerable to the criminal intentions of others as a result of underlying mental illness or cognitive disability.  In such cases, it may be that an accused is actually the victim of abuse by criminal gangs, and over time this has led to them being coerced into committing a crime.

When selecting an appropriate forensic psychologist, it is essential that you choose a person not just with psychological expertise but also someone who understands the standard of proof they must achieve (i.e. on a balance of probability or beyond reasonable doubt), has the necessary qualifications and experience, knows the process of giving written and oral evidence to a court of law, and understands the relevant legislation in detail (such as the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005).  It is also essential that where they do not have particular expertise, they openly acknowledge this to the court.  Attempting to cover too many bases without concrete expertise can jeopardise any legal case.

Wrapping up

The value of forensic psychologists in criminal and civil cases cannot be overstated due to their ability to provide context which may otherwise be missing.  By offering their expert opinion on psychological risk, capacity, and illness in a manner that is clear, unbiased, and objective, in accordance with proper legal and court procedure, forensic psychologist expert witnesses provide an important service to both the clients they represent and the legal system in general.

Speak to our experts

Expert Court Reports provides expert witnesses and medicolegal court reports for solicitors, barristers and other agencies, including the police, probation services, prisons, and third-sector organisations as well as private clients. To arrange an expert report related to child abuse, please call us on 01865 587865, email office@expertcourtreports.co.uk, or request a call by completing our online form.