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The Role of the Forensic Psychiatry Expert Witness


Lawyers often rely on third parties to help them succeed in their cases. One person who lawyers can use to assist them in prevailing in their cases is the forensic psychiatry expert witness.

Definition

The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law defines forensic psychiatry as “a subspecialty of psychiatry in which scientific and clinical expertise is applied in legal contexts involving civil, criminal, correctional, regulatory, or legislative matters, and in specialized clinical consultations in areas such as risk assessment or employment”. Less formally, Dictionary.com defines forensic psychiatry as “the use of psychiatric knowledge and techniques in questions of law, as in determining legal insanity”. Even more simply, forensic psychiatry is the bridge between psychiatry and the law.

As Expert Witnesses

As with any expert witness, forensic psychiatrists will be brought into a legal matter when they can provide knowledge and expertise on matters that are not easily understandable by others, such as a judge or a jury. In the case of forensic psychiatrists, their knowledge and expertise will be over matters involving psychiatric, mental health, and other related issues. The forensic psychiatry expert witness may give a written opinion on such issues and then testify, both as to the contents of and the basis for the written opinion, at a deposition or trial. The forensic psychiatry expert witness is expected to be independent and objective in rendering an opinion, and not be predisposed in favor of either side in the case.

Distinct from Other Related Professionals

It is important to distinguish the forensic psychiatry expert witness from two other related professionals. First, any forensic psychiatrist is distinct from any forensic psychologist. Forensic psychiatrists, unlike forensic psychologists, have medical school training and generally are considered to have greater expertise and higher status than forensic psychologists. Second, in any case, a forensic psychiatry expert witness is distinct from a treating psychiatrist in the case. The treating psychiatrist is ethically required to serve his patient’s best interests and therefore generally lacks the independence and objectivity of the forensic psychiatry expert witness. Because of their medical school training, greater expertise, higher status, independence, and objectivity, forensic psychiatry expert witnesses can be more credible witnesses (and therefore more valuable to a lawyer) than forensic psychology expert witnesses or treating psychiatrists in a case.

Broad Scope of Legal Matters Beyond Criminal Law

A common misconception is that forensic psychiatry expert witnesses only become involved in criminal law matters. It is true that probably the largest number of cases for forensic psychiatry expert witnesses arise in the area of criminal law; such issues as competency to stand trial, insanity defense availability, and sentencing mitigation are all critical issues in criminal cases that can be addressed by them. However, in fact, forensic psychiatrists can be involved in a host of non-criminal law matters, including civil litigation, probate, immigration, child custody, and non-litigation matters. If the matter (whether in a criminal law case or any other area of law) involves psychiatric, mental health, and other related issues, a lawyer can benefit from retaining a forensic psychiatry expert witness.


Provided by HG.org

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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