Forensic Psychology. Definition

There is no consensual definition of forensic psychology. Perhaps it is surprising, given the relatively long history and growth of forensic psychology over the past 40 years, that there is no uniform or consensual definition for this specialty area, and most differences involve how narrowly or broadly the field is defined. Definitions range from expansive ones—that include any application of psychology to any legal matters—to those that are narrower and typically are limited to clinical and counseling psychologists’ involvement in legal matters as examiners, treatment providers, or consultants.

Forensic Psychology DefinitionExamples of more expansive definitions include those offered by Huss (2009), who defined forensic psychology as “any application of psychology to the legal system” (p. 5); the American Psychological Association (APA; 2013), which in its Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology indicated that “forensic psychology refers to professional practice by any psychologist working within any subdiscipline of psychology (e.g., clinical, developmental, social, cognitive) when applying the scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge of psychology to the law to assist in addressing legal, contractual, and administrative matters” (p. 7); and the American Board of Forensic Psychology, which described forensic psychology as “the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system” (http://www.abfp.com/brochure.asp). In contrast, in its petition to the APA’s Committee for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology to establish forensic psychology as a psychological specialty, the Forensic Specialty Council (which comprises representatives from the American Psychology-Law Society [Division 41 of APA, hereinafter AP-LS], the American Board of Forensic Psychology, and the American Academy of Forensic Psychology) offered a more narrow definition: “Forensic psychology is the professional practice by psychologists within the areas of clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology or another specialty recognized by the American Psychological Association, when they are engaged as experts and represent themselves as such, in an activity primarily intended to provide profes­sional psychological expertise to the judicial system” (2008; also see http://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/forensic.aspx).

Brigham (1999) observed that these differences are more than semantic, and the varying definitions have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Whereas adopting a broad definition, according to Brigham, could promote growth and coherence in the field and facilitate development of graduate training programs, he acknowledged that grouping clinical psychologists with nonclinicians (e.g., developmental, social, and experimental psychologists) could prove complicated and perhaps problematic given the very different training and licensure requirements that often apply. Indeed, Brigham reported that disagreement among members of AP-LS about how broad or narrow the definition should be initially led the group to abandon a cooperative effort with the American Academy of Forensic Psychology to jointly sponsor a petition to have APA formally recognize forensic psychology as a specialty.

Adding to the confusion, how the terms forensic psychology or psychology and law are defined differs internationally. Conventionally, the entire field—including both clinical or applied areas and research areas—has been referred to as psychology and law or law and psychology in North America and continental Europe, whereas the term forensic psychology has been more commonly employed in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In countries that use the term forensic psychology in an expansive way, those who work in the applied areas of psychology and the law typically are referred to as clinical forensic psychologists (Ogloff, 2011).

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