Forensic psychology refers to professional practice by psychologist working within a subfield of psychology (i.e. clinical, social or developmental) when applying scientific or specialized knowledge of psychology to a question of the law to assist in legal proceedings. The work is considered ‘forensic’ from the time the practitioner agrees to, or is legally mandated to, provide expertise on an explicitly psycholegal issue. The assessment is generally geared to provide information that is most relevant to the psycholegal issue. This information usually involves commenting on the examinees’ functional abilities, capacities, knowledge, and beliefs; an opinion can be offered and recommendations that address the psycholegal issue. A typical assessment will include multiple appointments, face-to-face interviews, assessment tools, and access to previous medical and/or legal information to establish a meaningful picture of the individual in the context of the referring question.
A typical referral question may ask if the individual has competency in the context of mental disorder, disease, or defect. The courts may request an evaluation to determine if the patient/defendant has competency to plead and/or confess to an offense or charge. The referral question may be to assess whether the individual is competent to stand trial. Or a court referral may request the mental status at the time of an offense. Additionally, clinical/forensic psychologists may be asked to perform a threat assessment for schools, child custody evaluations, counseling services to victims of crime, screening and selection of law enforcement applicants, assess for PTSD, and provide intervention and treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders. During the evaluation process, the mental health clinician will rely upon empirically validated assessment tools and methods that are deemed admissible in court.
The mental Health professional uses valid, reliable, accepted methods to address the referring question. Much of the psychologist’s work is retrospective, often relying on third-party information, collateral contacts and written communications (e.g., statements made at time of the crime or during the police interrogation).