Category: Psychology
Ethical Dilemmas in Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychiatry is a branch of psychiatry, which addresses the problems that arise in the interface between psychiatry and the law, as well as the flow of offenders with mental disorders along a continuum of social systems. Modern forensic psychiatry was influenced by four key developments: understanding and recognition of the relationship between mental illness and crime; development of legal insanity; new treatments of mental disorders, providing alternatives to deprivation of liberty; and changes in social perceptions and attitudes towards mental illness. Undoubtedly, the knowledge of psychology is necessary for everyone, who has to deal with people and is called to influence and to educate. The science of mental life and human activities, studying processes such as sensation and perception, memorization, thinking, feeling and will, personality traits, individual characteristics, temperament, character, age, aptitude, etc., has the direct relation to the detection and investigation of crimes, and court proceedings.

The professions of the investigator, prosecutor, and judge gradually form a particular idea of the human psyche, forced to operate with the provisions of practical psychology and be knowledgeable in this area. However, the amount and quality of such knowledge, which is mostly intuitive, cannot go beyond a worker`s individual experience and personal data. In addition, such empirical knowledge about the mental world of a person, which is acquired from case to case, is unsystematic, and, therefore, cannot meet the ever-increasing demands of life. This causes ethical challenges in forensic psychology that penetrates all the spheres of the judicial system. For the most objective and qualified to solve the majority of issues, which are constantly faced by forensic investigators, extensive psychological knowledge is required along with legal and general knowledge and professional experience. The paper will examine the field of forensic psychology and study its ethical dilemmas.

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Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology includes various spheres of scientific knowledge, and it equally belongs to both psychology and law. The work of specialists in foreign psychology “ranges from basic science research to the application of psychology to specific cases in both civil and criminal areas”. Subspecialties of these areas include insanity, child custody, deprivation of parental rights, criminal sentencing, employee’s compensation, divorce, civil commitment, etc. Forensic psychologists ensure providing services to individuals, “whose legal rights are restricted by society’s needs for safety and justice”.

In the field of public relations that are regulated by the rule of law, human mental activity acquires unique features, which are determined by the specifics of human activity in the area of legal regulation. The methodological basis of forensic psychology is a systematic and structural analysis of activity. Thus, this science is focused on psychological problems of coordination and human rights as elements of a single system. Forensic psychology is a special part of legal psychology; it consists of the following sections: criminal psychology, the psychology of victims, the psychology of juvenile crime, investigative psychology, the psychology of the trial, forensic psychiatric examination and correctional labor psychology.

Forensic psychology develops psychological bases of law-abiding behavior (justice, morality, public opinion, social stereotypes); criminal behavior (the structure of the identity of offender, criminal stereotype, structure of the criminal group, criminal situation, structure of the victim's identity and role of these structures in the genesis of criminal behavior); law enforcement (prevention of crime, investigative psychology, psychology of the trial, forensic psychiatric examination); re-socialization of offenders (correctional labor psychology, psychology of adaptation after release); and psychology of minors.

The specificity of the subject of forensic psychology consists of the originality of vision of searching for evidence-based approaches to reduce the possibility of violation of legal provisions by corrective psychological states as well as characteristics of individual offenders. It clarifies the complex interweaving of human relationships, which do not take into consideration the psychological, subjective characteristics of people and the motives, which push a person to commit a crime. Forensic psychology includes various scientific spheres of knowledge. It is an applied science and it equally belongs to both psychology and law. In the field of public relations, regulated by the rule of law, human mental activity acquires unique features, determined by the specifics of human activity in the area of legal regulation. Psychological studies of a victim's identity and his/her activities are very relevant, as they contribute to the solution of a number of issues: a proper definition of crimes, the study of the causes and conditions, comprehensive investigation of criminal cases, the discovery of new evidence, etc. Judicial workers, who are routinely confronted with diverse manifestations of the psyche of defendants, victims, and witnesses, try to understand the complexities of their mind in order to properly understand it. The work of these specialists requires moral and psychological conditioning, due to significant mental stress and moral strength.

Ethical Challenges

Professional ethics is the so-called code of conduct that provides the moral nature of the relationships between people, related to their professional activities. Despite the universal character of moral requirements, there are special rules of conduct for certain types of professional activities. The emergence and development of such standards represent one of the lines of the moral development of mankind because they reflect the increased value of a person and maintain humanity in interpersonal relations. Forensic professionals “are bound by the general principles of the Ethics Code”, which include beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, autonomy and respect. Dignity and interests of representatives of a particular profession are measured by how they embody the general principles of morality, in relation to the specifics of their work. The increased measure of moral responsibility, increased sense of duty and respect for additional rules of conduct are crucial primarily in legal activities, where specialists’ work does not fit the strict formal schemes. In this sphere, the state of health, the spiritual world and the position of an individual in society depend on the effectiveness of the specialists’ work. Successful performance of one`s professional duties suggests that he/she has such qualifications as a deep sense of responsibility and willingness to perfectly perform his/her professional duties.

Regardless of the type of legal activity, the core principle of the professional ethics of a lawyer is justice. Without this moral quality, the legal sphere loses its meaning. Lawyers are required to possess other qualities such as objectivity, impartiality, independence, respect for human rights and the presumption of innocence. The ethical principle of respect for rights and dignity requires respecting an individual’s psychological and physical integrity, legal and moral rights. Outlined principles occupy an extremely important place in the structure of the professional activity of a lawyer. Experiencing its essence, these principles are the strategy of behavior. In contrast to the norms of public morality, the principles of legal ethics - fairness, impartiality, objectivity, independence and respect for human rights - express unconditional moral requirements, compliance with which is obligatory for a lawyer in all situations. Tension to appropriate an advocacy position can present one of the ethical dilemmas.

Forensic psychology faces a number of ethical challenges. “One of the most common ethical dilemmas in forensic practice is the boundary confusion between the role of the treating psychiatrist and that of the forensic psychiatrist in a given case” (Wettstein, n.d.). Officials of the proceedings acutely feel problems of morality, as they often face unusual situations, and are responsible for taking decisions. One of the methodological principles of forensic psychology is the personal approach. Forensic psychology studies identity. This allows building the structure of personality and highlighting elements that are significant in a crime situation in various aspects of law enforcement, development of a strategy of re-socialization of offenders, etc. One of the most important tasks of forensic psychology is the allocation of internal personal assumptions that can create a crime situation.


Understanding of the nature of professional morality derives issues on the development of forensic ethics and the expansion of moral principles in criminal proceedings. There are general and special parts of the system of forensic ethics. The general part explains general provisions on ethics and professional ethics, subject, methods, system, and objectives of judicial ethics, the total value, and specificity of moral relations in proceedings and labor relations. The special part should include issues such as particular moral principles of judicial investigation and ethics of an investigator, especially moral principles and ethics of a trial judge, moral principles of advocacy and ethics of a counselor, moral education and self-education of investigators, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, experts, educators, and so on. Psychological competence of forensic investigators helps to prevent errors that may occur during the judgment of human actions due to the undercounting of the psychological moment.

A significant increase in crime, as well as the development of its most dangerous forms: organized crime, sexually motivated murders, assassinations, and so on, require improvement of the effectiveness of law enforcement. On the other hand, the protection of rights and interests of individual citizens in the process of bringing them to trial and the trend towards humanization of the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases are enhanced. This determines the need for a high level of professional competence law enforcement officers as the main integral factor that ensures the protection of the interests of both individuals and organizations from criminal attacks, and compliance with all legal rights and interests of individuals and groups, as well as ethics. Professional competence is largely determined by a personal potential of a lawyer, i.e. the system of psychological factors that can be combined with a general concept of psychological culture. The progressive development of competencies, the flexibility of mind and character, sharp observation and tenacious memory, self-control, integrity and fairness, organization and independence are greatly influenced by recommendations of psychological science, which indicate the correct ways and means of their formation.

Forensic psychology is deeply intertwined with the concept of ethics. Forensic ethics aims at promoting moral education of society and, in particular, the officials in charge of court proceedings. The task of judicial ethics is to study the role of moral principles in compliance with procedural rules. Moral principles, which govern relations between participants in proceedings, are undoubtedly an essential guarantee of the rights of individuals. Investigators, prosecutor, and defender, administrator, and educator of correctional facilities should be armed with psychological knowledge to navigate complex and intricate relationships and conflicts. To a large extent, the tasks of forensic psychology are determined by the need to improve the practical activities of the administration of justice. Forensic psychology is characterized by a number of ethical dilemmas that are determined by personal factors. Being engaged in the study of dark sides of life, sometimes in the most repulsive of its manifestations, investigators and judges should keep personal immunity to negative influences and avoid undue distortions of personality, the so-called professional deformation (suspicion, self-confidence, accusatory, and so on).

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