Ethics for Forensic Psychology, Uncategorized

Therapeutic Role vs. Forensic Role


The coexistence of a therapeutic end forensic role is a topic of debate that pans into the ethicality of the practices.  The belief of Bush and colleagues emphasized that to be of benefit to the legal system and elicit ethicality one should develop a sense of divergence among conflicts of interest (Neal, 2010).  Shifting focus to maximize ethical potential avoids misconduct and enforceable disciplinary action and encourages positive ethicality in one’s profession (Neal, 2010).    Understanding the perception of why some practices are unethical appears as one of the most vital concepts of Bush, Connell, & Denney (Neal, 2010).  Although certain practices are clearly identified as unethical, there are gray areas remain that require the consideration of their implications and the possible repercussions of one’s chosen reaction to the practice (Neal, 2010).   Although the duties and roles of therapeutic and forensic specialists differ in legal issues, there lies the potential of overlap between the roles (Hugaboom, n.d.).   It is assumed a clinical therapist who indulges in a dual role as a forensic specialist may have a negative impact on the client, the legal issue, and the outcome of services.


Therapeutic Role

A clinician role includes the promotion of treatment void of harm by obtaining informed consent and maintaining confidentiality and privacy while functioning within the boundaries of competence (Greenburg and Schumann, 1997).  Clinicians are expected to abide by blurred guidelines when faced with legal proceedings that may require them to testify on behalf of their client, submit records, report suspicion of child abuse (Hugaboom, n.d.).  One of the most vital expectations of a clinical therapist is to maintain confidentiality of the client, but at times confidentiality is broken legally and ethically (Hugaboom, n.d.).  For instance, a therapist is expected to breach confidentiality in events of suspicion of physical or sexual abuse, self-harm or harm to others, and when a court action requires their testimony (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Non-compliance in these areas may result in charges including contempt of court (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Only when the information sought is considered privileged, not relevant to the court hearing, is it considered legal and ethical for the therapist to reject exposing the information to protect the client’s right of privacy and confidentiality (Hugaboom, n.d.).  The therapist must be involved in a professional relationship with the client, the information must be given to the therapist or assistant, and the information must not be released to a third-party by the client (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Most importantly, the legal confines of therapeutic roles lead to tough decisions such as testifying for or against a client and reporting potential danger (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Consequences for ethical decisions hold potential of confinement for contempt of court while decisions made for legality hold potential of decreasing trust and hindering the effective therapeutic – client relationship (Hugaboom, n.d.).  A clients best interest is always the priority, however, at times, crossing the gray area of legality and ethicality encompasses the possibility of  the therapist mistakenly leaking confidential information when not required which may lead to a loss of licensing (Hugaboom, n.d.).

Forensic Role

The forensic role is defined as one which practices explicitly with psycholegal issues, directly assisting in court, legal proceedings, correctional mental health facilities, and in an adjudicative capacity (American Psychology-Law Society, 2011).   A forensic psychologist should practice only in areas of expertise gained through education, training, and experience with fundamental knowledge in legal, factual, professional, and civic standards in the area of which they practice (American Psychology-Law Society, 2011).  The standards above give the forensic specialist the privilege of testifying as an expert witness allowing them to express personal opinion, but must be careful to render the highest standards of the profession and ensure their services are used responsibly (Hugaboom, n.d.).


A therapist creates a trusting professional treatment for a length of time while to deal with issues that may be hindering some aspect of life for the individual (Heltzel, 2007).  On the other hand, a forensic psychologist meets with the client a few times, just long enough to conduct an evaluation after a crime is committed and the client is the accused (Hugaboom, n.d.).  A forensic evaluation is less time consuming and not as in depth of those that may be completed by a therapist (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Due to the forensic specialist not developing an on-going relationship he or she can more easily determine objective reality whereas a therapist, who creates a relationship of trust, empathy and understanding focuses on subjective thought (Hugaboom, n.d.).  However, both therapeutic roles and forensic roles require the elicitation of informed consent to the client (American Psychological Association, n.d.).  In the therapeutic role, confidentiality and privacy are supported unless the therapist suspects the client capable of harm to themselves or someone else, or potential child abuse (American Psychological Association, n.d.).  However, the forensic professional is responsible to emphasize to the client all information obtained in regards to legal purpose will be divulged, and only information exposed that does not relate to the specific case will be protected (American Psychology-Law Society, 2011).   The last point implicates the potential of the client to expose more information to a therapist rather than a forensic specialist who is at leisure to expose and have information used against them.


Some argue a short, initial assessment constitutes the gathering of enough information to make an ethical objective opinion about the client, but this though may be rejected as the consideration of why therapy was sought and now the need for a forensic assessment stands (Hugaboom, n.d.).  As a clinician testifying in a legal matter, he or she must implicate the risks involved with a dual relationship including the possibility of breaking trust as information must be divulged in regards to the legal matter (Hugaboom, n.d.).  It is also imperative that therapist create a wall separating the forensic role from the therapeutic role and never incorporating the two roles together (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Additionally, in the event a professional relationship is severed and a forensic role is incorporated, the therapist must depict the ways objectivity may be affected and disclose any conflicts of interest that may arise (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Psychologists are encouraged to utilize scientific and professional knowledge in all practices, assessment tools should be chosen according to appropriateness for the specific issue and prevent misuse of the instrument while identifying any limitations of the chosen tool (Hugaboom, n.d.).

Others believe that allowing a clinical therapist to testify as an expert witness may cause harm due to the consequences the professional and client may face (Hugaboom, n.d.).   Often times, the therapist does not hold enough knowledge about forensic matters causing testimony to be discredited as research has indicated clinical therapist’s predictive ability of future violence to be compatible to that of a high schooler (Hugaboom, n.d.).  Competency of therapists is essential in providing ethical treatment and assessment.  When the professional does not have the competence to conduct justifiable professionalism congruent to the ability necessary, ethical codes of the APA are breached (Greenburg & Schuman, 1997).   Often, legal ability is not met by clipnical therapists such as the ability to render a client legally incapacitated as per the recognition of consequence that may derive from impulsive actions (Hugaboom, n.d.).

Reconciliation of Roles

Research by Hugaboom implicates the difficulties that may arise from a clinical therapist delving into a dual relationship and taking on a forensic role.  It is found the potential error that may occur from a clinician indulging into a forensic role may actually result in negative consequence for the client and therapist.  Clinical therapists may find it difficult to maintain the neutral role required by forensic professionals due to the interpersonal relationship created in the therapeutic setting.  Depleting neutrality may create a bias win judgement and an opinion based on subjective emotions rather than scientific and legal evidence derived from forensic assessments.    A forensic psychologist seeks minimal encounters with the client and does not edify the history or the much of the emotional attachment in the case at hand.  The forensic professional has a goal of deciding abnormal behavior and ability of the client to meet the social expectation or if there is an underlying issue such as insanity that may have led to the crime purporting the client incapable of standing trial or accepting consequence for actions. When subjective feelings become the driver in a testimony, the objective role is abandoned and the potential of information vital to the issue being withheld increases.  Additionally, the confidentiality and privacy laws were enacted as a protection to clients receiving services.  However, a clinical therapist remains at risk to abort these protections either accidentally or due to the need of the legal issue.  Forensic professionals are not expected to adhere to such strict guidelines allowing them to abort confidentiality when necessary to the case.  It appears that if a clinical therapist entertains dual roles with a client, there is too much risk involved and the client, who is to be protected, is open to more harm.  Although the therapist has more in depth information that may hold more evidence of the cause of behavior, it seems that taking a subjective standpoint defies the clause of sound judgment made in a court hearing.  It is believed subjective testimony may create emotion with those involved rather than a scientific and knowledge based judgment.  For the above reasons, a dual role should not be taken by a clinical therapist.  However, if services were requested at the close of the legalities, the forensic professional would have the ability to subjectively approach treatment based on the objective assessments and opinions from the legalities.



American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Ethical principles of psychologists and
code of conduct including 2010 amendments
. Retrieved from http://www.apa.

American Psychology-Law Society. (2011). Specialty guidelines for forensic
. Retrieved from

Greenberg, S. A., & Shuman, D. W. (1997, February). Irreconcilable conflict between therapeutic and forensic roles. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28(1), 50-57. Retrieved from

Heltzel, T. (2007). Compatibility of therapeutic and forensic roles. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(2), 122-128. doi: 10.1037/0735-7028.38.2.122

Hugaboom, Denise (n.d.). “The Different Duties and Responsibilities of Clinical and Forensic Psychologists in Legal Proceedings.” The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research 5 (2002): 27-32. Web. [accessed:  October 10, 2016]. Retrieved from <;


Neal, T.M.S. (2010). Choosing the lesser of two evils: A framework for considering the ethics of competence for execution evaluations. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice,10, 145-157. doi: 10.1080/15228930903446724





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