Within the litigation arena there are multiple experts that are called upon to assist the trier of fact (the juror) or the judge. Typically a psychological expert is called based on their area of focus for the case being litigated. In civil cases some of the areas of focus are: emotional trauma (after an injury or attack by an assailant); ability to function after a head injury (cognitive or memory issues); evaluation of a child in a custody matter, and developmental issues (diagnoses related to abuse in children such as sexual trauma).
In cases where the issue is of a criminal nature the focus may range from competency of the defendant to stand trial, influence of mitigating factors for the offense during the sentencing phase, not guilty by reason of insanity, personality assessment of the defendant, and prediction of violence and assessment of future risk to name a few areas.
Psychological experts must be licensed to practice. In most venues they are expected and demanded to have a clinical practice or to be an academician teaching in the area they are testifying about and not have any therapeutic relationship with the person they are evaluating. The psychologist will consider the person’s present condition and past conditions /learning/trauma that may have influenced their condition.
When a person has no prior psychological history (in the instance of a child with no prior trauma) and even when there is no known trauma, collateral sources (teachers, parents, or significant others) can and are interviewed to get a perspective about the plaintiff or defendant along with the administration of standardized interviews and psychological tests.
A psychological expert may or may not have other expertise (e.g. vocational or neuropsychologist). In the absence of other expertise the psychological expert may rely on those opinions offered within a reasonable degree of certainty from another expert or the opinions of a treating provider (e.g. therapist, vocational expert, neuropsychologist etc.).
Combined with the plaintiff’s or defendant’s interview data, test findings when administered, the other expert or treating provider(s) reports, the psychological expert can then offer an opinion within a reasonable degree of certainty.
It is typical that different sources of data are researched in order to provide the most comprehensive analysis. Current and past literature regarding the focus of attention, i.e. similar situations that represent the same type of trauma are considered when available. The opinions offered may also include what the plaintiff or defendant might be predicted to experience e.g. risk assessment or need for post injury counseling and prognosis for recovery.
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A person’s work life might also be opined if the psychologist is experienced and knowledgeable about how the specific trauma will effect the plaintiff’s working along side others in a competitive work environment.
Psychological experts are licensed in their state and usually have a Ph.D. although some Master level degreed persons do testify. Various affiliations are recognized but not necessarily mandatory.
Psychological experts have jobs that provide service to persons not in litigation as well but they cannot offer forensic opinions if they are treating the plaintiff or defendant. Psychological experts are located throughout the United States and the world.
Psychological experts also offer their expertise to the federal government within the social security disability adjudication process. At a hearing the judge, and the claimant’s attorney if they are represented, will ask the claimant questions about their disability and questions about their work history. The psychological expert will testify whether the claimant can do their past job given their reported disability. If the claimant cannot perform their past job the psychologist will offer an opinion about what possible jobs the claimant can alternately perform.
Therapeutic recommendations can be offered by the psychological expert and costs of such services are made available when requested. Psychological experts do no prescribe medications and do not assume a therapeutic relationship after the civil or criminal matter has concluded.