The Business of Practice

What are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Forensic Psychologist?

Forensic psychology can be conceptualized as encompassing both sides of the justice system (criminal and civil) as well as two broad aspects of psychology (clinical and experimental). Forensic psychologists may be trained as clinical or experimental psychologists and engage in various roles within these two broad areas. This article describes the wide variety of forensic psychologists' roles and responsibilities. 

What are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Forensic Psychologist?

Role and Responsibilities of Forensic Psychologists

The roles and responsibilities of forensic psychologists are many and varied. There is no particular path to becoming a forensic psychologist, and forensic psychologists may be employed in various settings.

Usually, forensic psychologists take on one primary role but engage in additional positions depending on their interests and training. The various roles that a forensic psychologist may take on include, but are not limited to:

Forensic psychologists are employed in a wide variety of settings, including: 

  • Forensic hospitals
  • State or private psychiatric hospitals
  • Community mental health centers
  • Private practice
  • Academic institutions
  • Correctional facilities
  • Research agencies

The Trial Consultant

Trial consultants (or jury consultants) work with legal professionals to assist in various aspects of case preparation, including:

  • Jury selection
  • Development of case strategy
  • Witness preparation

Many trial consultants rely on their research and training to assist attorneys in preparing a case. Research and data collection strategies might include:

  • Community surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Jury simulations
  • Shadow juries
  • Mock trials

As a trial consultant, a professional may be involved in civil and criminal cases and may assist at any stage of the proceedings. Typically, a trial consultant has an advanced degree in behavioral science, such as clinical or experimental psychology or criminology.

Consultation, however, is more expansive than just the courtroom. It may also include the following:

  • Consultation with lawmakers about public policy issues with psychological implications
  • Consultation and training to law enforcement, criminal justice, and correctional systems
  • Consultation and training to mental health systems and practitioners on psycholegal issues

The Expert Witness

An expert witness is someone who testifies in court about the specialized knowledge that they possess. For example, forensic psychologists are often called upon to testify regarding mental health matters or general theory and research in psychology and law.

Generally, clinical forensic psychologists are involved as expert witnesses after evaluating an individual. They, thus, are called to testify regarding that individual’s mental state and how it relates to the legal issue (disability, insanity, competency, dangerousness, etc.). 

It is possible, however, for forensic psychologists to serve as general expert witnesses instead of testifying regarding specialized knowledge. They may testify on broader psychological principles in which they have specialized knowledge or expertise. This role is usually performed with another function, such as a researcher.


The Evaluator

Many forensic psychologists take the role of evaluators. In general, this refers to the evaluation of criminal defendants or parties to civil litigation concerning mental health issues related to the legal matter. Moreover, the evaluation of service delivery or treatment programs is also essential.

Psychological evaluators are trained clinical psychologists specializing in forensic psychology and are generally required to be licensed psychologists.  Some types of evaluations are:

Criminal Evaluations:

  • Trial competency
  • Waiver of Miranda rights
  • Criminal responsibility
  • Death penalty mitigation
  • Domestic violence

Civil Evaluations:

  • Personal injury
  • Child custody
  • Employment discrimination
  • Mental disability
  • Professional malpractice
  • Civil commitment

Risk for Aggression:

  • Community
  • Work
  • Treatment settings
  • Correctional facilities

Psychological issues impacting the legal process:

  • Jury selection
  • Testimony (e.g., eyewitness or children)
  • Repressed memories
  • Pretrial publicity

The Treatment Provider

Treatment providers provide psychological intervention or treatment to individuals requiring or desiring these services. In addition, treatment providers may work with individuals (or groups) involved in both criminal and civil proceedings.

In the criminal realm, treatment providers may provide psychological interventions to individuals for many criminal law-related issues. For example: 

  • Defendants who have been determined by the courts to be incompetent to stand trial
    • Treatment for the attainment or restoration of competency
  • Individuals found not criminally responsible for a crime
    • Treatment for their mental illness
  • Those at high risk of committing a violent offense
    • Treatment to minimize the likelihood of acting violently in the future
Within the civil realm, forensic psychologists may be called upon to provide treatment to: 
  • Families who are going through divorce proceedings
  • Individuals who sustained psychological injuries as a result of some trauma that they

The same forensic psychologist may perform both treatment provider and evaluator roles. However, ethical guidelines limit the chances that the same professional will fill both positions for a given individual. 


The Researcher

Forensic psychologist researchers design and implement research on various issues relevant to forensic psychology or psychology and criminal and civil law. In addition, these professionals may research mental health law or conduct policy and program evaluation.


The Academic

Forensic psychologist academics are involved in teaching, research, and other education-related activities. Psychologists who take on this role can be trained in psychology or one of the specialties, such as clinical psychology. These professionals usually have an advanced degree in psychology, typically a Ph.D. 


The Correctional Psychologist

A correctional psychologist is a psychologist who works in a correctional setting with individuals who are incarcerated. These psychologists often engage in direct service delivery—both evaluation and treatment—of individuals who have been incarcerated or who are out on probation or parole. Thus, in addition to the roles of evaluator and treatment provider, correctional psychologists may also take on the part of researcher or expert witness. 


Professional Development

Forensic psychologists engaged in professional development contribute to the development and maintenance of forensic psychology as a specialized field of study, research, and practice. In addition, as psychology is a dynamic field, professional development ensures clinicians are updated on best practices and gold standards to help facilitate providing clients with the best care possible.

Some ways for forensic psychologists to get involved in professional development are:

  • Policy and program development in the psychology-law arena
  • Teaching, training, and supervising graduate students, psychology and psychiatry interns/residents, and law students

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