Modern forensic psychology has been a viable professional field for the last half-century so it would seem that defining forensic psychology should be a straightforward task; however, this is not the case. The difficulty stems from the fact that the professionals who work in forensic psychology come from a wide range of graduate and professional backgrounds. This article provides an overview of the various ways in which forensic psychology has been defined.

Varying Roles and Responsibilities of Forensic Psychologists

Forensic psychologists take on a wide variety of roles and responsibilities. Some have degrees in clinical or counseling psychology; others have graduate training in other areas of psychology, such as social, developmental, cognitive, or neuropsychology. Others have backgrounds in law, some with degrees in both psychology and law. The nature of their contributions to forensic psychology also varies. One central issue in defining forensic psychology is that forensic psychologists can work both within and outside the legal system. Some psychologists provide direct services to the court through assessments of issues such as competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility, or child custody. Others are researchers, typically based in universities, who conduct basic or applied research on such topics as eyewitness behavior or jury decision-making. Still others combine both research and clinical practice.

Definitions of Forensic Psychology

For these reasons, it has been difficult to arrive at a definition that encompasses all of these professional backgrounds and varied roles. Various individuals and organizations have proposed different definitions of forensic psychology. Some use broad definitions that attempt to encompass all of the backgrounds and roles described above and distinguish the research and practice contributions. Others focus more on the applied applications of psychologists as providers of expertise to the legal system.

American Board of Forensic Psychology

The American Board of Forensic Psychology provided the following definition of forensic psychology in 1997: forensic psychology is the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system. The word “forensic” comes from the Latin word “forensis,” meaning “of the forum,” where the law courts of ancient Rome were held. Today forensic refers to the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversary process where especially knowledgeable scientists play a role.

American Psychological Association

In 2001 the American Psychological Association defined forensic psychology as the professional practice by psychologists who foreseeably and regularly provide professional psychological expertise to the judicial system.

Such professional practice is generally within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, neuropsychology, and school psychology, or other applied areas within psychology involving the delivery of human services, by psychologists who have additional expertise in law and the application of applied psychology to legal proceedings.

Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists

The Committee on Ethical Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists (1991) defined forensic psychology to include “all forms of professional conduct when acting, with definable foreknowledge, as a psychological expert on explicitly psychological issues in direct assistance to the courts, parties to legal proceedings, correctional and forensic mental health facilities, and administrative, judicial, and legislative agencies acting in a judicial capacity” (p. 657). These guidelines are currently in the final stages of revision and the latest draft refers to forensic psychology as encompassing all professional practice by any psychologist working with any sub-discipline of psychology (e.g., clinical, developmental, social, cognitive) when the intended purpose of the service is to apply the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law and to use that knowledge to assist in solving legal, contractual, and administrative problems.”

Brigham's Presidential Address

The conflicts involved in arriving at a definition was the subject of Professor Jack Brigham’s 1998 presidential address to the American Psychology-Law Society. He posed the question, “What is forensic psychology, anyway?” His answer reflects the conflicts about clinical and non-clinical participants in forensic psychology:

To return to my original question about what is forensic psychology, I believe that there are two levels of classification that yield two sets of definitions. At the level of ethical guidelines and professional responsibility, the broad definition fits best. Any psychologist (clinical, social, cognitive, developmental, etc.) who works within the legal system is a forensic psychologist in this sense, and the same high ethical and professional standards should apply to all. When it comes to how the legal system and the public conceptualize forensic psychology, however, there is a definite clinical flavor. The clinical/nonclinical distinction is a meaningful one, I believe. For example, educational, training, and licensing issues that are pertinent to clinical forensic psychologists may be irrelevant or inapplicable to nonclinical forensic psychologists. Further, clinicians and nonclinicians differ in their orientation to the legal process and in the role that they are likely to play in the courtroom (e.g., individual assessments vs. research-based social fact evidence). So there you have it—two varieties of forensic psychologists, clinical and nonclinical. (Brigham, 1999, p. 295)

Excerpted from: Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic psychology and law. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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