Frequently Asked Questions

Forensic psychiatry is a sub-specialty of psychiatry that focuses on the interface of mental health and law. Forensic psychiatrists offer consultation in various legal matters and sometimes offer expert testimony in civil and criminal legal cases. Forensic psychiatrists also work with perpetrators and victims in legal cases.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors (M.D.) trained to diagnose and treat mental disorders and prescribe medications. Forensic psychiatrists have additional training and experience related to mental health and the law. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology offers a subspecialty board examination in Forensic Psychiatry to psychiatrists who have first completed a one-year full-time fellowship in forensic psychiatry. Forensic psychiatrists frequently interact with attorneys, judges, and jurors in the courtroom and offer expert testimony in legal proceedings. A forensic psychiatrist may offer his or her expertise in areas such as assessment of criminal insanity, or discrimination based on sex, gender, ethnic or racial make-up, and age, capacity to make or change a will, and emotional damages such as posttraumatic stress disorder in addition to many other areas.  

Forensic psychology is the intersection between law and psychology. It requires an understanding of fundamental legal principles as well as the legal language of the courtroom, and an ability to translate psychological findings into that language. Forensic psychologists select, administer and interpret psychological test data to educate attorneys and jurors in litigation. The employ both psychological and neuropsychological test instruments, depending upon the questions they are asked to address.

Psychologists study and evaluate how people think, feel, and behave. They often work in clinical and counseling settings and in some states such as California are required to have a doctorate degree in psychology (PhD, PsyD). Forensic psychologists are specially trained to interact with attorneys, judges, and jurors in order to provide expert opinions in criminal or civil legal proceedings. They have additional law training and are often designated as witnesses in their particular area(s) of expertise, such as neuropsychology, clinical psychology, or social psychology.

Forensic experts offer special insight into matters of mental health, medicine, and other areas. Attorneys and judges frequently seek consultation from professionals in a wide variety of fields—these individuals are generally referred to as “experts” or “expert witnesses.” An attorney may hire a forensic psychiatrist to help decide whether to file suit, or to develop expert opinions about questions of capacity (e.g. criminal insanity) and/or psychological injury.  In some cases, forensic experts are called as witnesses during a trial.

In cases where psychological or neuropsychological testing is required, or when knowledge of psychotherapy is required, a forensic psychologist is generally chosen to provide expert testimony. When pharmacologic (medication) issues or questions arise, forensic psychiatrists are almost always the preferred choice. Forensic psychiatrists are also the preferred choice when issues with biological treatments, laboratory tests, and physical tests and procedures arise. However, in many instances, forensic psychiatrists and forensic psychologists work as a team with complementary skills, for example when evaluating a person who may have suffered atraumatic brain injury.

Forensic psychiatry and psychology experts can assist in a variety of legal matters including both criminal and civil proceedings.  Civil cases include litigation where damages are claimed as a result of medical or psychiatric malpractice, employment cases where there are allegations of harassment or discrimination based on gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and more. Forensic psychiatric and psychological experts are retained in personal injury litigation to address issues of emotional damages. The offer opinions in matters of psychiatric disability claims as well as will contests where there are disputes about testamentary capacity (the competence to make or change a will) or allegations of undue influence. In criminal matters they address both issues of capacity (e.g. capacity to enter a plea, assist in one’s defense, or form criminal intent and thus be held accountable for a criminal act). They also may offer testimony on issues of mitigation during the sentencing phase of a criminal trial.  In the realms of public safety and criminal justice, forensic psychiatrists and psychologists can help analyze security threats. In workplace cases, a forensic psychiatrist may be tasked with assessing whether a disability claim for a chronic illness such as fibromyalgia, depression, or chronic fatigue syndrome is valid and work-stress related. There are a myriad of ways in which a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist may assist attorneys in their handling of a legal case.

Professional forensic psychiatrists and psychologists are governed by codes of professional ethics specific to their professions. They are careful to avoid bias, focusing on the data and evidence presented to them in their area(s) of expertise. While they may be consultants to attorneys, federal agencies, plaintiffs, defendants, and courts, they avoid advocating for one side or another (the role of the attorneys) in legal cases. Psychological and psychiatric expert witnesses do not accept contingency fees or engage in any behavior that might tie their expert opinions to the outcome of the case.

Forensic psychiatrists are medical doctors and are expected to follow the general ethics of the medical profession. Many belong to professional organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) each of which have their own explicit codes of ethical conduct. Forensic psychologists are held to the ethical standards laid out by the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, which includes sections on clinical practice, research, and publication. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who fail to adhere to the principles outlined in their respective codes of ethics face possible sanction, expulsion from professional organizations and even loss of professional licenses by governing authorities such as state medical boards or boards of psychology.

All forensic experts generally charge hourly rates for work with attorneys and courts, and are paid for their time, not for their testimony. Since forming an opinion takes place outside the court, experts are paid for their time reviewing records, examining plaintiffs or criminal defendants and writing reports, and deposition testimony whether or not they testify at trial. Siding with an attorney simply to make money is unethical, and forensic experts who do so risk irreparably damaging their reputation. Ethical experts like those at fpamed offer only objective, evidence-based opinions. Their contract explicitly states that after employing the best available scientific methods to address specific questions asked of them, their conclusions may or may not support the retaining attorney’s particular theory of the case.

When multiple plaintiffs file suit against one or more defendants after a catastrophe, or something environmental (such as a toxic spill, or health problems related to asbestos exposure), or an employment condition or work environment, it is referred to as a multi-plaintiff or mass tort claim. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists can be an invaluable resource by using a team approach to provide evidence-based opinions about the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of affected plaintiffs, as well as opinions about causation and thus the prospective liability of the defendant(s). Forensic teams often come together to perform a screening of a particular population (class), identifying and performing more detailed assessments of individuals who have suffered significant damages. When assessing an entire population of plaintiffs for a mass tort case, there can be economies of scale and unique dynamics among the litigants.