What is Psychology and Law?

The area of psychology and law deals with all issues that lie at the intersection of human behavior and the law. This encompasses issues that deal with criminal behavior associated with mental illness, police procedures and practices, how to improve the regulation of human behavior through laws, and how basic cognitive research can have important implications for legal issues.

The term "psychology and law" encompasses individuals who work as ‘forensic psychologists‘ (clinicians dealing with mentally ill offenders), criminal psychologists, legal psychologists, and any individual working with the topics of psychology and law.

James Ogloff (2002) prefers the term "legal psychology" over psychology and law, and defines the field as:

“Legal psychology is the scientific study of the effect of the law on people; and the effect people have on the law. Legal psychology also includes the application of the study and practice of psychology to legal institutions and people who come into contact with the law." (pp. 13; Ogloff, 2002')

Some of the positions that can be assumed in the area of psychology and law are outlined below.

Clinical forensic psychology

Clinical forensic psychologists assess, diagnose and treat mentally ill offenders, usually in a clinical setting. Most commonly, forensic psychologists administer treatment to offenders that have been deemed mentally ill. Treatment is typically part of, or all of, a sentence mandated by the correctional system to mentally ill offenders, or part of rehabilitation efforts.

These professionals are also sometimes consulted by lawyers to administer diagnostic tests and determine whether an individual is suffering from a mental illness that could render that individual not responsible, or less responsible, for their actions in the eyes of the law. Or as Kirk, Rogers and Otto (2002 as cited in Ogloff, 2002*) put it:

"... (Forensic Assessment) involves the assessment of those involved in criminal and civil litigation for the purposes of assisting legal decision makers in making better informed decisions about litigants, or helping attorneys more effectively advocate for their clients in the course of litigation.... using reliable, valid techniques and measures, and the communication of these results in a concise, accurate fashion." (p. 119)

Forensic risk assessment

Another important part of psychology and law is trying to assess, based on empirical research, whether, when and under what conditions we should release an offender back into the community. This kind of work is called Risk Assessment. Risk assessment is

"the process of understanding hazards to minimize their negative consequences" (p. 147; McNiel et al, 2002 as cited in Ogloff, 2002).

It involves using empirical research on patterns of offending, usually combined with professional judgment, to estimate how likely an offender is to re-offend upon release into the community. This is of particular interest in the area of violent crime. Estimates are usually given on a scale of high to low risk. This work is highly contested by some, given the concern that no-one can ever predict the future and that we cannot apply group-level statistics to individuals with any level of accuracy. Ultimately, someone needs to help legal professionals decide whether and under what conditions to release offenders, and we prefer they base their decision on research and professional judgment rather than purely on intuition.

We try to prevent recidivism, but in reality we can never know what will happen.

A great reference for more information on violence risk is available here.

Competency assessment and expert testimony

Two jobs that legal psychologists can assume in court directly are competency to stand trial assessments and giving expert testimony. These two jobs often involve the professional actually appearing in court and giving a statement.

"Competency to stand trial" assessment is the most common pretrial evaluation, and involves testing an individual who has been called to appear in court on their understanding of the basic concepts and procedures used in court. This means understanding such concepts as "truth", and understanding what the implications of attending court can or will be. Both children and adults can undergo competency evaluations - although adults usually only undergo these assessments if they have been deemed mentally ill, or have a low IQ.

An individual who has been deemed an "expert" by the academic community of his/her field, and can contribute to the case at hand, can be invited to give an expert testimony. Expert testimony, as given by a psychology and law professional, can be a statement on how basic cognitive processes can affect the evidence provided in the case, on the competency of a given witness, on a clinical evaluation of one of the actors involved in the case, or on any related topic. Only few psychology and law specialists are ever asked to attend court and provide expert testimony, but when they are, experts can make a real difference in the outcomes of a case. Unfortunately experts typically waffle and use too much jargon to be understood by any of the legal personnel - but IF executed properly, an expert can enlighten judge and jury with academic and professional wisdom. Mind you, an expert's role is never to be a trier of fact and to determine guilt - he or she is merely invited for input that can help the actual trier of fact, the judge or jury, in their decision.

Research

A large number of those working in the area of psychology and law have academic jobs and conduct research on important issues in our field. Some of the main research areas are briefly described below.

Eyewitness testimony and interrogations

One of the areas in forensic psychology that deals with the judicial system itself, rather than with the perpetrators of crime is the area of eyewitness testimony.

"Research on eyewitness testimony examines the reasons for errors in eyewitness memory, some of which have led to wrongful imprisonment. The research has spawned recommendations on how these errors can be minimized." (p. 200; Lindsay, Brigman, Brimacombe & Wells, 2002 as cited in Ogloff, 2002*).

Eyewitnesses are usually a key component to legal cases - with their statements often taken at face value and their memories not adequately questioned.

Research into the area suggests, however, that Eyewitnesses are prone to certain kinds of memory errors because of basic perceptual biases, their responses to suggestive questioning, and the malleability of the memory system. Basic memory errors are in fact often generated or consolidated by common policing techniques such as interviewing methods and the way police lineups are structured. Psychology and Law specialists that work in this field are often baffled by the amount of false information generated by such procedures, and attempt to teach legal professionals strategies that avoid biasing and changing witness's memories.

Judges and jurors

When individuals are assigned Jury duty, common people are given the power to decide all, or part of, the fate of a fellow citizen. This carries inherent risks and problems with it because "common people" are often not familiar with judicial proceedings, the technical jargon used in court settings, are often presented with contradicting evidence by defense and prosecution, are often convinced by other members of the jury to give a certain verdict rather than by evidence presented in court, and cannot possibly understand "lawyerspeak".

Lawyerspeak is the confusing language used by Lawyers, often intentionally, that facilitates misunderstanding and miscommunication in court. Because the answers to Laywerspeak can often be interpreted in many ways, it is often used to discredit witnesses or experts, and greatly confuses jurors. Double negatives are a common example of this. Research into these kinds of problems is important because it provides insight into jury decision-making and dilemmas in court that can lead to miscarriages of justice.  At the very least, we want jurors to understand the evidence and arguments that are presented to them in court, yet at the moment this is rarely the case. Psychology and law professionals hope to encourage evidence-based practice in court settings to help ensure fair trials.

Children and the justice system

Children can come into contact with the criminal justice system in a variety of ways, from witnessing criminal events, to being the victims of crimes, even to perpetrating crimes. The nature of a child's often limited understanding of the world and the criminal justice system makes dealing with them inherently difficult.

Some of the key issues when dealing with children are whether the child is capable of giving reliable eyewitness testimony in court, whether children can ever be held truely responsible for their actions, and how to determine whether a child has been abused. Legal Psychologists try to deal with these issues from an empirical background, by conducting research on such topics as child suggestibility, memory malleability and truth-telling behavior.

Of course, the other end of the stick is trying to make contact with the legal system as pleasant as possible for the child, rather than confusing and traumatizing. That means offering measures such as closed-circuit television for when the child is ready to testify, and having psychologists or trained social workers supervise all interactions with legal personnel to ensure the child's full understanding and comfort.

Ultimately, we know that especially young children have a bias to answer questions asked by adults in the way they think the adult wants, often regardless of the "truth". This means that open-ended questions and free narrative should be preferred ways to find out what a child actually experienced. Psychology and law specialists try to minimize children's biases, enhance their understanding of the judicial process, and thus help the justice system with it's truth-seeking goal.

Other areas we work in

Besides these topics, individuals who work in the area of psychology and law deal with issues related to jurisprudence, civil law, lawsuits, environmental law, reconviction and rehabilitation, memory and attention, criminal thinking, how neuropsychology and biochemistry are related to crime, and any other topic at the intersection of psychology and law.

If you want more basic information on Psychology and Law consult an introductory Textbook such as: Pozzulo, J., Bennell, C., & Forth, A. (2005). Forensic Psychology. Toronto: Pearson (you can buy it here).....Or the fantastic book cited many times in this brief review: Ogloff, J. R. P. (2002). Perspectives in Law and Psychology, Volume 14: Taking Law and Psychology into the Twenty-first Century. New York, New York: Kluwer Academic Plenum Publishers (you can buy it here).

The following journals are some the of the best sources for information exclusively on the topic of psychology and law.

  • Psychology, Crime and Law;
  • Psychology, Public Policy and Law;
  • Law and Human Behavior;
  • Law and Psychology Review;
  • Psychiatry, Psychology and Law;
  • The Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice.

Learn more

Read our fact sheets and controversies articles for more information on various issues in psychology and law. Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. You can also find out about studying psychology and law through our "studying abroad" series.