What do criminal barristers think of psychologists and psychiatrists?

Most criminal barristers think psychiatrists make more useful expert witnesses than clinical psychologists, with the latter considered to be most appropriate when it comes to determining confession reliability. That’s according to a survey of 62 British barristers by Tim Valentine and colleagues.

In case any readers are unsure of the difference – psychiatrists are medical doctors who have gone on to specialise in mental health. Clinical psychologists are psychology graduates who have gone on to practise in mental health following their post-graduate training, which these days takes the form of a doctorate with taught and research-based components.

It always used to be psychiatrists who were called on to act as mental health expert witnesses in criminal cases, but over the last twenty years or so, psychologists have been increasingly called on too.

Forty-six per cent of the current sample of barristers said they thought the main difference between psychologists and psychiatrists as expert witnesses, was that psychiatrists are for mental illness whereas psychologists are for issues of personality. Dishearteningly for psychologists, 22 per cent of the barristers said the main difference was that psychiatrists are more useful.

Consistent with this, most barristers said they would call on a psychiatrist, rather than a psychologist, for issues relating to witness reliability and mitigation. However, for issues of fitness to plead, most (85 per cent) said they would also call on a psychologist to back up a psychiatrist’s testimony. Only 22 per cent said they would do the same for diminished responsibility. For confession reliability the majority (72 per cent) said they would actually call on a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist.

The authors said it might help the standing of psychologists in court if legal professionals were given information about the underlying scientific basis of psychology and its potential contribution to the criminal justice system. They also called on psychologists and psychiatrists acting as witnesses to be provided with accredited training, a suggestion supported by the majority of the sampled barristers.

Leslie, O., Young, S., Valentine, T. & Gudjonsson, G. (2007). Criminal barristers’ opinions and perceptions of mental health expert witnesses. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology, 18, 394-410.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Editor’s note: The role of psychiatrists and psychologists in court has not been without controversy, as highlighted by this classic paper.