Ethical Practice Forensic Psychology:

This excellent article written by Dr. Christopher Cronin was first published in the September 2006 edition of the forensic psychology newsletter.

In her book titled, Whores of the Court: The Fraud of Psychiatric Testimony and the Rape of American Justice, Margaret Hagen, an experimental psychologist and professor, contend that mental health professionals testifying in court are "witchdoctors" and "psychoexperts' who mislead judges and juries while chasing the "almighty dollar."

Certainly such a provocative accusation can inspire some doubt regarding the ethical practice of forensic psychology. Indeed, when high profile cases appear in the media pitting one expert's opinion against another, it is not surprising that the public may become suspicious of the role of the experts in court and their motivations.

Starkly opposing expert opinion may suggest that one or both experts are simply performing the role of the 'hired gun', advocating for their attorney's client. What other explanation could possibly exists for two competent professionals to arrive at a professional opinions that are polar opposites. The example of opposing expert opinion is just one illustration of potential ethical conflicts in the practice of forensic psychology.

In my last article, I discussed the need for the forensic psychologist to be sensitive to the possibility of malingering among examinees and indicated that this was one of the differences between the practices of clinical psychology compared to forensic psychology. Another distinction between the two endeavors is the ethical concerns and potential ethical pitfalls.

All psychologists are guided by the Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct, published by the American Psychological Association and recently revised in 2002. The ethical practice of forensic psychology is also informed by the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists published in 1991. Psychologists practicing forensic psychology can use these two documents to help clarify ethical questions. Nevertheless, the possibility of ethical dilemmas should be a constant concern for forensic psychologists. The very nature of the practice of psychology within the legal arena can lead to ethical conflicts.

Communication between retaining attorneys and forensic psychologists is critical to avoid misunderstandings. Ethical problems can be avoided through continuing education and obtaining consultation and supervision form colleagues who are experienced and perceived as possessing an ethical professional identity.

When confronted with an ethical dilemma, psychologists are encouraged to consult with colleagues in the profession and can call the APA Office of Ethics for guidance.


Brodsky, S. L., & McKinsey, R. K. (2002). The ethical confrontation of the unethical forensic colleague. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(3), 307-309.

Downing Hansen, N., & Goldberg, S. G. (1999). Navigating the nuances: A matrix of considerations for ethical-legal dilemmas. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30(5), 495-503.

Hagen, M.A. (1997). Whores of the court: The fraud of psychiatric testimony and the rape of American justice. New York: Harper Collins.