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What Qualifications Are Important When Lawyers or Judges Choose a Forensic Psychiatrist?

By William H. Reid, M.D., M.P.H. Email: reidw@reidpsychiatry.com

Clinical experience is critical to most cases. The psychiatrist is hired primarily for his or her ability to clarify the psychological and medical issues of a case, not to interpret legal ones. This does not mean that the forensic psychiatrist must have a large clinical practice, but some contact with clinical care and/or medical teaching is relevant to most (especially civil) cases.

The forensic psychiatrist should be expected to understand the legal concepts and impact of the mental health issues in a case, and to be able to convey his or her psychiatric findings in language that the court can understand and use. Attorneys unfamiliar with mental health law or the potential effect of a psychiatric issue on their cases should be able to rely on the forensic psychiatrist’s knowledge and experience to some extent, but the legal process itself is the province of lawyers and judges.

Attorneys, clients, and courts should also expect that a professional offering expert psychiatric opinions has an M.D. or D.O. degree, has completed approved specialty training, is appropriately licensed, has been "certified" by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, is a member in good standing of professional organizations with ethics codes, actively participates in continuing education, is accepted by clinical/patient-care peers (e.g., serves on medical staffs of hospitals, practices within a clinical community, and/or teaches at a medical school), and enjoys a good reputation within the profession. (Note that there are competent psychiatrists who are not Board-certified or do not belong to professional organizations. Nevertheless, certification and membership are consistent with qualities which are important to consider in forensic settings.) The potential expert’s background should be free of factors which might diminish professional credibility (e.g., license restrictions, frequent personal lawsuits).

General psychiatric training and clinical experience are sufficient for some forensic purposes. In most, however, familiarity with highly specialized clinical issues (e.g., sexual harassment, hospital standards, violence, child psychiatry) and/or forensic topics (e.g., criminal responsibility, competencies & capacities, wrongful death, child custody proceedings) is required. Such expertise may be demonstrated by additional training, relevant experience, special certification (e.g., forensic psychiatry certification), research, or publications related to the topic at hand.