Forensic psychiatry is a branch of medicine that focuses on the interface of mental health as well as law. It includes psychiatric consultation in a wide range of legal matters as well as clinical work with perpetrators as well as victims.
A medical doctor with the additional training of a psychiatrist, and then specialized training and experience in the application of psychiatric knowledge to questions posed by the legal system is called a forensic psychiatrist. In a scenario, where a forensic psychiatrist acts in the capacity of a forensic specialist, he/she does not provide therapy to alleviate the patient’s suffering or help the patient be healthy. Instead, he provides an objective evaluation that can be used by the retaining institution, attorney, or court.
When does forensic psychiatry prove useful to the legal process?
In cases where legal matters involve issues that are outside the expertise of lawyers and judges, consultation from professionals in a wide variety of fields, including medical specialties is sought. This is when forensic psychiatrists work with courts in evaluating an individual’s competency to stand trial or defenses based on mental diseases or defects, and sentencing recommendations.
Basically, there are two major areas in criminal evaluations in forensic psychiatry. They are listed below:
Competency to Stand Trial (CST)
This competency evaluation is used to determine whether a defendant has the mental capacity to understand the charges and assist his/her attorney. This law, which is seated in the Fifth Amendment to the US constitution ensures the right to be present at your trial, face the accusers, and seek help from an attorney. Often, forensic psychiatrists are called to be expert witnesses in civil and criminal proceedings. Here, the forensic psychiatrist has to give his/her opinion about a specific issue often from a detailed report, prepared beforehand. It is the duty of the expert witness to provide an independent opinion to the court.
Mental State at the Time of the Offense (MSO)
This evaluation is used to give the court an opinion, which states whether the defendant was able to understand what he/she was doing at the time of the crime. Many states word this very differently, whereas in some, it has been rejected altogether. Despite that, in every setting the intent to do a criminal act, and the understanding that it was a criminal act bear on the final disposition of the case. Forensic psychiatry is mostly guided by the laws of significant court rulings that bear on this area. These laws include three standards which have been listed below:
- Durham Rule: This court ruling excuses a defendant whose conduct is because of a mental disease or some defect.
- M’Naghten Rules: This rule excuses a defendant who does not know the quality of the act, or does not know that the act is wrong because of a defect of reason or disease of the mind.
- ALI Test: This test is used to excuse a defendant who lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct, or to conform his conduct to those required by the law because of a mental disease or defect.
Forensic psychiatrists also take care of prisoners in prisons as well as jails.
What are the professional ethics to which forensic psychiatrists are expected to adhere?
All forensic psychiatrists are expected to adhere to the general ethics of the medical profession, such as the Oath of Hippocrates and the Oath of Geneva. Apart from this, they must also meet many requirements of the state licensing agencies. Most forensic psychiatrists belong to the basic professional organizations of psychiatry, such as the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law (AAPL) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Both these organizations have a formal code of ethics.
Disclaimer: This CareerStint article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.