Ethics and deontology in forensic psychology: the code that governs expert witnesses
A summary of the ethical principles governing the work of forensic psychology experts.
As in all branches of behavioral science, forensic psychology also has its own code of ethical standards..
With this article we will be able to delve into some of the most important concepts that every forensic psychologist must respect during the performance of his activity so as not to enter into confrontation with the deontology of this field.
The importance of ethics and deontology in forensic psychology
All the disciplines that are dedicated to health must be governed by very clear rules regarding the ethics of the actions of the professionals. This is the case, for example, of medicine and, of course, psychology. Specifically, we are going to talk about the importance of ethics and deontology in forensic psychology, one of the branches of this science that is dedicated to its legal side.
Forensic psychologists, among other things, make expert reports to advise a judge about the expert reports to advise a judge on the psychological foundations of different actions or situations..
Such a delicate task, which involves not only the intervention of a health science such as psychology, but also judicial decisions that can restrict the freedom of an individual, or give custody of a minor to one party or another, must be carried out with extreme caution, and always within an ethical framework that can in no way be exceeded, to have the maximum guarantees that the psychological action is being carried out with the greatest possible objectivity and without violating a single right of those affected.
To achieve this goal, there are codes of ethics that apply to all psychological practice in general, but there are also others that are specific to the forensic side of this discipline, and that propose a series of guidelines for preparing expert reports in a way that ensures that no ethical criteria are violated.. Below we will see some of them and take examples to illustrate the good practices to be performed to respect ethics and deontology in forensic psychology.
General ethics in psychology
Although there are some ethics manuals at the national level, such as the Code of Ethics of the General Council of Official Colleges of Psychologists, and even at the European level, it is possible to find some examples of ethics in forensic psychology.In the case of the European Federation of Psychologists' Associations, such as the Metacode of Ethics of the European Federation of Psychologists' Associations, it is also true that each Official College of each autonomous community in Spain is responsible for drawing up the guidelines that should govern the actions of psychologists registered in that territory.
In this case we will take as a reference those made by the Official College of Psychology of Madrid. In this case, the first document we find is the Ethics and Deontology in Psychological Practice.
The interesting thing about this guide is that in its introduction it explains that it arises as a response to a series of studies in which the incidence of several issues that could imply a lack of ethics in the day-to-day activity of different psychologists in several different branches of the profession was analyzed. Therefore, it became necessary to establish a single set of criteria to avoid situations in which, perhaps due to lack of knowledge, it was not acting in the most correct way..
The ethics and deontology in forensic psychology is also shown in this manual, as it has a specific section in which the problems of this field are addressed. One of the characteristics of the forensic discipline compared to other branches of psychology is that in this field, in general, the psychologist works with people who do not wish to be there of their own free will, but rather, the relationship is imposed by the process of the forensic psychologist's work. the relationship is imposed by the judicial process in which they are immersed, and that makes the psychologist's position and this makes the psychologist's position particularly delicate.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the field of legal psychology (which includes forensic psychology) is the group that receives the most complaints of alleged malpractice in this Official College. This does not mean, far from it, that all of them lead to the opening of a disciplinary process, since in most cases it is demonstrated that such a complaint is not appropriate, and therefore it is dismissed. But it is an example of the extreme delicacy of this field and the implications that a bad performance can have.
The data show that the field of forensic psychology receives more than 25% of the total number of complaints against psychology professionals in general.. Of this amount, more than half are filed without the need for an investigation, as there is no evidence of malpractice. Of the remainder, only a few, 7% of the total number of complaints filed, result in the opening of disciplinary proceedings. This is a very low figure for the total number of interventions carried out in this field.
Good practice guidelines in forensic psychology
Continuing with other examples of documents that the Official College of Psychology of Madrid has edited to establish unified guidelines for action in terms of ethics and deontology in forensic psychology, let's take a look at some of the most important ones to discover their usefulness.
Custody and visitation of minors
If the practice of forensic psychology is already extremely delicate, when it involves decisions affecting minors, we are talking about even more sensitive cases.. That is why the COP of Madrid decided to publish the Guide of good practices for the elaboration of expert psychological reports on custody and visitation of minors.
After the approval of the divorce law, the problem of custody has been a constant, and the figure of the expert psychologist is essential to advise the judge on the most favorable option for the child, once all the possibilities have been evaluated.
The best interest of the child is the fundamental pillar of ethics and deontology in forensic psychology in this field. One of the maxims that will govern these actions is that the psychologist evaluates the whole family group, since it is not possible to reach reasonable conclusions if only the custody conditions have been studied.It is not possible to reach reasonable conclusions if only the custody conditions for one of the parents or guardians have been studied. The evaluation, moreover, must always be carried out using objective criteria, obviously.
Equally important is that all family members know the purpose of the evaluation process to which they are being subjected, and must give their express consent to it. The psychologist must also inform both parents or guardians of the techniques to be applied to the minors, and if either of them is against it, the procedure must be immediately interrupted, unless there is a court order to continue.
If the previous point was already extremely delicate work, it is even more so when it comes to ethics and deontology in forensic psychology in cases of child custody and visitation for victims of gender violence. The sensitivity of these cases will be, if possible, even greater, which is why the expert psychologist will have to take extreme precautions and protect at all costs the best interests of the child.which is the general law governing all actions involving work with minors.
Risk of violence against women
The other area in which the most delicate cases occur within forensic psychology, and which we already mentioned in the previous point, is that of cases of violence against women. In order to have as much knowledge as possible about how to act, the COP of Madrid prepared the Guide of good practices for the forensic psychological evaluation of violence against women in relationships. (VCMP).
The figure of the forensic psychologist in this field is of vital importance, as he or she will become the judge's advisor and will be one of the professionals who will evaluate whether a situation of violence against women is occurring, and if so, what type of violence it is, what its repercussions may be and the possible risks. It is, of course, an extremely complicated task and has to be done under very strict protocols that guarantee maximum ethics throughout the process.
The psychologist must make it clear to those involved in the forensic evaluation what his or her role is: to advise the judge in a very specific field, that of psychology, within the situation that is being judged, so that he/she has all the information on the table before making a decision.. And it is always the judge who is in charge of sentencing and deciding. Psychological experts are only advisors who provide valuable information to make the decision as objective as possible.
- Bartolomé, A., Chacón, F., García, J.F., García, A., Gómez, M.R., Gómez, R., Vázquez, B. (2013). Good practice guide for the preparation of expert psychological reports on custody and visitation of minors adapted to cases of gender violence. Colegio Oficial de Psicólogos de Madrid.
- Chacón, F., García, J.F., García, A., Gómez, M.R., Vázquez, B. (2009). Guide of good practices for the preparation of expert psychological reports on custody and visitation of minors. Colegio Oficial de Psicólogos de Madrid.
- COP Madrid (2011). Ethics and Deontology in psychological practice. Official College of Psychologists of Madrid.
- Gómez, M.R., Muñoz, J.M., Vázquez, B., Gómez, R., Mateos, N. (2012). Good practice guidelines for the forensic psychological evaluation of the risk of violence against women in intimate partner relationships (VCMP). Official College of Psychologists of Madrid.