The Surprisingly Broad and Varied Role of the Forensic Psychologist

There are currently close to one hundred subfields within the profession that most laypeople will tend to think of simply as a singular pursuit – psychology. Those who may have a little more insight might also be aware of a few of the more common variants, such as the industrial, behavioural, developmental and educational subfields. However, beyond the limited view they may have gained from watching one of the many popular TV series that feature talented criminal profilers, not many would be aware of the full extent of the applications within this discipline that are of a forensic nature.

In fact, wherever the goals of the law or the justice system may be seen to benefit from a greater insight into the nature of a given individual or group’s behaviour and the factors that influence it, the law is required to call upon the services of a psychologist with a suitably specialised skillset and adequate relevant experience of the circumstances to be reviewed. The possible applications for these specialists are manifold, and the demand for their services comes from the courts, correctional facilities, police departments, rehabilitation centres, legal firms, schools and various government agencies, to name just a few.

They can be found working with defendants, victims, attorneys, and their families, as well as with prisoners and mentally-ill patients in detention and rehabilitation centres. Within these establishments, the role of the forensic psychologist is a varied one. In addition to the frequently glamorised role of a profiler, he or she may be required to take part in devising and conducting effective mental health programmes for offenders, or for those who are affected by substance abuse.

At other times, the requirement may be to assist the court as an expert witness or with the selection of jurors, or to consult with those who may have been affected by the impact of assault, rape, child abuse, or a divorce and its frequent consequences, such as adjusting to limited, custodial and visitation rights, and having to cope alone. Police, working in high-crime areas may often need counselling. This may be undertaken as a means to modify the attitude and behaviour of a particular officer, or to alleviate the effects that the everyday demands of the job may be having on his or her mental health. While some prefer to devote their activities to research, for the average practising forensic psychologist, the above catalogue of tasks is often just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

It is clear that, because of their constant and intimate involvement with the law and its processes, a sound knowledge of legal matters or even a formal qualification in the subject is invaluable to the work of these practitioners, although the latter is not essential.

Dr Tienie Maritz is a Pretoria-based practitioner with more than 25 years of experience in several of the subfields of psychology. As well as providing career, trauma, marriage, couples and family counselling services, parental guidance and individual psychotherapy, Tienie has also been retained to provide psycho-legal services to a number of entities within the South African justice system in the role of an experienced forensic psychologist.