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What is Legal Psychology?

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  • Written By: Laura M. Sands
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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Legal psychology is the term used to describe incidents where legal matters must be considered in tandem with psychological matters. This specific field of psychology is often referred to as forensic psychology and is commonly used in criminal investigations, particularly where the sanity of a defendant is in question or when it is believed that an eyewitness to a crime may not accurately convey information to a court. Professionals trained in legal psychology are often called upon to participate in criminal investigations before a court trial begins and to eventually testify in court regarding their findings.

A number of professionals trained in legal psychology find work in prisons and mental health institutions. Some may even work in private practices while specializing in certain aspects of the field that may be helpful to police investigators and judges. Individuals trained in legal psychology are also frequently relied upon to counsel witnesses and victims of violent crimes during an ongoing investigation.

The duties required of a person trained in legal psychology vary quite a bit. Judges presiding over child custody hearings will often require a professional trained in legal psychology and who has experience counseling young people to evaluate children in an effort to determine custody and visitation orders. Others working in this field may be relied upon to provide psychological research to attorneys relating to how jurors are likely to view defendants and arrive at verdicts.

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Many who practice psychology as it relates to the law often hold post-graduate legal degrees, as well as degrees in psychology. As an ever-emerging field of study and a career option that is growing in popularity and demand, many universities offer graduate courses in investigative psychology and some even offer more extensive programs for individuals interested in a career in legal psychology. In such programs, many are able to earn a law degree while working on a doctorate in psychology at the same time.

Professionals who specialize in legal psychology, at some time or another, are called upon to assist with cases pending in a criminal court, a civil court or a family court as what is known as an expert witness. Testimony from these individuals is well-respected and weighs heavily on decisions made in those courts. Those with experience in police psychology also work closely with law enforcement agencies in counseling police officers and in evaluating officers, particularly in cases where it is believed that an officer’s mental state may interfere with her or his job duties.

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suntan12
Post 3

@Bhutan - I agree that criminal psychology is an important field, and often the field of forensic anthropology has a lot to do with piecing a criminal case together. A forensic anthropologist for example, might study the insects that were surrounding the dead body to determine if the body was moved and how long it had been in that location.

It is a little gruesome, but it is also interesting how they can determine the age of the deceased victim along with the sex and height of the victim. This is amazing when you consider that in many murder cases the remains of the victim is all that is left of the body.

Bhutan
Post 2

@Latte31 - I remember that trial and that goes to show you that you never know how people are going to act, you can only take an educated guess.

I wanted to say that many forensic psychologists also do criminal profiling that help law enforcement search for suspects. They can tell by the nature of the crime if the suspect knew the victim, and they can also tell other characteristics of the suspect based on the forensic evidence left at the scene of the crime.

I think that criminal profiling is a necessary art, but I could not do it. I would probably have nightmares trying to get into the minds of a criminal especially a serial killer.

Criminal psychology is a growing field and now many schools offer a PhD in forensic psychology. Years ago there were only a handful of colleges that offered this degree, now there are a lot more that do because of the growing demand.

latte31
Post 1

I think that psychology and law are a really interesting mix. I was looking at potential functions of a forensic psychologist does and a lot of times they are called upon to help lawyers select potential jurors.

I think that being a jury consultant has to be fascinating because you are taking educated guesses on how people will think based on some demographic information that you have. It doesn't always work out and sometimes these educated guesses are wrong.

For example, in the OJ Simpson criminal trial the jury that was selected was based on the assumption that African American females would be more sympathetic to the victim who was also a women, but what ended up happening was the jurors were more sympathetic to OJ Simpson and they identified with him more and they happened to share the same race. So even sometimes these forensic psychologists get it wrong.

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