What is Forensic Psychiatry?

Forensic psychiatry is a sub-speciality of psychiatry and an auxiliar science ofcriminology. It encompasses the interface between law and psychiatry. A forensic psychiatrist provides services – such as determination of competency to stand trial – to a court of law to facilitate the adjudicative process.

Forensic psychiatrists are often called to be expert witnesses in both criminal andcivil proceedings. Expert witnesses give their opinion about a specific issue. Often the psychiatrist will have prepared a detailed report before testifying. The primary duty of the expert witness is to provide an independent opinion to the court. An expert is allowed to testify in court with respect to matters of opinion only when the matters in question are not ordinarily understandable to the finders of fact be they judge or jury. As such, prominent leaders in the field of forensic psychiatry, from Thomas Gutheil[1] to Robert Simon and Lisa Gold[2] and others[3] have identified teaching as a critical dimension in the role of expert witness. The expert will be asked to form an opinion and to testify about that opinion, but in so doing will explain the basis for that opinion which will include important concepts, approaches and methods used in psychiatry.

Some practitioners of forensic psychiatry have taken extra training in that specific area. In the United States, one year fellowships are offered in this field to psychiatrists who have completed their general psychiatry training. Such psychiatrists may then be eligible to sit for a board certification examination in forensic psychiatry.

When legal matters involve issues outside lay (general public) expertise, lawyers and judges regularly seek consultation from professionals in a wide variety of fields, including medical specialties. Such professionals are often called “experts” or “expert witnesses.” Although forensic experts usually are truly knowledgeable, the criteria for “expert” designation in such cases are legal ones, and not necessarily scientific. Sometimes the expertise is sought in an effort to provide the best possible information to judges or juries, but there are many other situations in which a prudent attorney, judge, or other party may request consultation.


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