What is an Expert Psychiatrist Witness?

An expert psychiatrist witness is a medical doctor whose expertise in the field of psychiatry is utilized in a criminal or civil proceeding. These doctors and their specialized knowledge have been increasingly important in litigation, and their medical opinions on psychiatric issues, such as psychosis and depression, play a pivotal role in court proceedings. 

For more information about the role of an expert psychiatrist witness in legal matters and how to become one of these renowned and respected medical professionals, continue reading. 

What are the duties of an expert psychiatrist witness?

There is a clear distinction between a “fact witness” and an “expert witness”, both of which a psychiatrist may be called upon by the court to testify as in a civil or criminal case. 

A “fact witness” is one that testifies about strict observations related to the party of the case, likely the defendant. A strict observation typically refers to symptoms and treatment the psychiatrist has personally witnessed from the party either through private sessions or through a court-ordered psychiatric examination. A fact witness is usually not asked to give opinions, but rather speak only to their direct observations. 

An “expert witness” is a psychiatrist who is considered to have specialized knowledge that a layperson would not possess. This witness’s role is to provide clarity into psychiatric and clinical knowledge particularly about the crime in question. These medical professionals are expected to educate the court on the potential psychiatric circumstances at play and to provide their medical opinion as to the ramifications of those psychiatric circumstances to the concerning crime. 

In a nutshell, an expert witness is specifically asked by the court to draw conclusions from the evidence presented, even if the expert witness has not personally observed the person in question. 

These expert witnesses may also be asked to determine the defendant’s capacity to stand trial. 

Because of their critical role in a court proceeding, an expert psychiatrist witness is expected to be qualified, truthful, ethical, and unbiased. 

In what type of cases does an expert psychiatrist witness testify?

Expert psychiatrist witnesses testify typically testify in criminal and civil cases. In fact, approximately 80% of civil cases and 50% of criminal cases in this country call upon the testimony of expert psychiatrist witnesses. 

Although these experts typically are relied upon in criminal and civil cases, expert psychiatrist witnesses may also provide opinions in various family cases, such as divorce proceedings, and employment cases. 

What is the difference between an expert psychologist and an expert psychiatrist witness?

In some cases, an expert psychologist and an expert psychiatrist may be used interchangeably. However, the two are not the same. The main difference between the two is that a psychiatrist is a trained medical doctor, unlike a psychologist. The medical training undergone by a psychiatrist allows for these professionals to prescribe medication, thus being able to speak upon psychiatric side effects of medication, and authorizes them to recognize behavioural influences of medical illnesses. This expertise makes an expert psychiatrist witness’s testimony invaluable to certain cases. 

A psychologist, however, does have the advantage of being able to administer and interpret specific psychological exams for which a psychiatrist is not qualified. 

How does one become an expert psychiatrist witness?

Becoming an expert psychiatrist witness is not easy. It is an extremely coveted position that is earned through years of study and service. The path to becoming an expert psychiatrist witness begins with earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as biology or chemistry. 

Following earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, a physiatrist to-be will complete medical school and then residency. After one year of general residency, an aspiring psychiatrist must complete thirty-six months of additional training in areas such as substance abuse and cognitive behavioral theory, in accordance with the American Psychiatric Association.

Once all educational requirements have been completed, one must obtain the license to practice in their particular state and become board certified. 

A licensed and board-certified psychiatrist then has several paths they can take to become an expert witness. However, more often than not, expert psychiatric witnesses come from forensic psychiatry, which is a field that practices the application of psychiatry in legal contexts. 

If an expert witness does not come from forensic psychiatry, they could come from private practice, research, or academia. Regardless of the field, it is beneficial for an aspiring expert witness to join professional organizations, such as the Forensic Expert Witness Association, to broaden one’s reach and network. 

It is important to note that a psychiatrist does not suddenly pronounce themselves as an expert witness, the court has to recognize and accept your expertise. 

How is an expert psychiatrist witness selected for a case?

Typically, an expert psychiatrist witness selected for a case has some sort of relationship with the court, the prosecution, or the defense. However, the psychiatrist selected will differ depending on the case at hand because each case will require different special knowledge. 

In fact, there are over 11 different psychiatric specialties, ranging from adolescent psychiatry to military psychiatry, and each specialty is accompanied by its own training and knowledge. Choosing a psychiatrist that is an expert in the issue at hand is key to the prosecutions and defenses case. 

There are many avenues to find an expert psychiatrist witness. There are many firms that offer expert witness services or you do research on individuals in private practice that market themselves as expert witnesses. 

If you are a psychiatrist looking to be an expert witness, you should consider marketing yourself as one or inquiring about joining a firm that deploys expert witnesses.

Expert psychiatric witnesses are a prestigious group of medical doctors whose knowledge is widely sought and respected. These individuals have devoted their careers to the application of psychiatric science in the legal realm and offer their wisdom to many criminal cases, civil cases, and other cases. The path to becoming an expert psychiatric witness is not an easy one. However, it is a fruitful one for those willing to put in the work.