Forensic F.A.Q.’s

What is forensic psychiatry?

The American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law defines forensic psychiatry as a medical subspecialty that includes research and clinical practice in the many areas in which psychiatry is applied to legal issues.

Why is a forensic psychiatrist necessary?

The role of a forensic psychiatrist is to evaluate certain aspects of a legal case and provide medical opinion on specific questions posed by members of the legal system. The evaluation can include interviews, record reviews, contact with collateral sources, and use of standardized instruments, among other methods. The medical opinion is often conveyed in a forensic report, which seeks to make medical terms and concepts understandable to those without a background in medicine.

What is the difference between an expert witness and a forensic psychiatrist?

An expert witness is the general term given to an individual who testifies in court on certain issues which they have expertise in and are typically able to provide opinions about the subject. A forensic psychiatrist is a physician who is able to provide expert opinion on certain topics within psychiatry, depending on their knowledge, skills, education, experience, and/or training. While a forensic psychiatrist may be called upon as an expert witness, not all expert witnesses are forensic psychiatrists.

Are forensic psychiatrists “hired guns” by one side or the other in a legal dispute?

In the Ethics Guidelines for the Practice of Forensic Psychiatry, the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law clearly states that when psychiatrists function as experts with the legal process, they should adhere to the principle of honesty and should strive for objectivity. Regardless of which side an expert is retained by, the psychiatrist should seek to do an unbiased evaluation and provide an objective opinion. Sometimes, a forensic psychiatrist’s opinion is not helpful to the side which retained them; if so, the psychiatrist should be ready to make that clear to retaining counsel.

What is a fellowship and why is this training important?

Fellowship training is a focused year in a particular subspecialty, such as a forensic psychiatry, which is undertaken in addition to the general residency program. A fellowship in forensic psychiatry allows for extended training and experience in forensic report writing, testifying in legal settings, and use of forensic tools during evaluations. Fellowship training, like general residency training, follows a rigorous accreditation process, ensuring that psychiatrists who have completed fellowship training have met certain standards within the field.

What are standardized instruments?

Standardized instruments are tools used by some forensic psychiatrists to maintain a level of consistency in their approach to forensic evaluations. The instruments themselves are varied and may be widely different in their use. For example, certain instruments, such as those used in the detection of malingering, are validated by their authors and can provide statistical information to the evaluator. Other instruments are simply a structured guide to address questions specific to legal issue at hand, such as competence to stand trial.

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