Forensic Psychology: Certified specialty in the legal arena

Written by  Margot Krijnen Friday, 01 January 2010 00:00

Harald Merckelbach and Corine de Ruiter: “An important link between forensic assessment and science”

In 2008, the brand new Maastricht Forensic Institute (TMFI) joined forces with the UM Forensic Psychology section of the Department of Clinical Psychological Science to provide the Dutch legal system with a broad range of high quality forensic research. By this partnership, TMFI is able to offer expertise in forensic and legal psychology as well as technical research. Professor Corine de Ruiter, who leads the Forensic Psychology section, and Professor Harald Merckelbach are both involved in TMFI.

“Currently, psychologists without specific forensic training are asked to examine suspects and report to the judge,” says Corine de Ruiter. “These 'ad hoc experts' interview the suspect, perform psychological testing, and write their report. This is risky, because there is much more to forensic assessment.” Harald Merckelbach agrees: “Cases that require an external expert are often extremely complex and the judge needs objective information to make a decision. You cannot provide that kind of information unless you are aware of the scientific literature in the field. Take a violent crime where the suspect used cocaine. Could the crime have been provoked by the cocaine use? That answer can only be given when you are knowledgeable about research in this domain, which shows how important it is to link forensic assessment and science.” “Don’t forget,” adds Corine de Ruiter, “that these kinds of decisions determine a person’s life: will a suspect be sentenced for life, will he be under TBS (“terbeschikkingstelling”=placing an offender under a restriction order) or imprisoned for a few years or more? Not something to be taken lightly.”

Specialty and expertise

Why are there so few trained forensic psychologists in the Netherlands? Corine de Ruiter explains: “It was never a specialised field, such as clinical or occupational psychology. In other countries, it is a certified specialty. In the UK, for example, you have to be a chartered forensic psychologist before you can serve as an expert. Once you do that, international ethical guidelines apply to your forensic assessment. For example, these guidelines state that you must be transparent about the basis of your conclusions. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands this development is thwarted by people already in the field. If forensic training was officially required for standing as an expert witness, these people would have to take additional forensic training.”

“An example,” says Harald Merckelbach: “Two men watch a football game on TV and drink a lot of alcohol. One drinks much more than the other. They get into a fight, resulting in a knifing. The least drunk man says he was stabbed by the other. The very drunk man partially confesses by saying he remembers holding the knife. The question is: wasn’t he too drunk to remember? The answer is provided by psychopharmacology. This subdiscipline can determine the quantity of alcohol in the man’s body and delineate exactly what that means. In this case, the conclusion was that the alcohol concentration was too high to remember anything. This example shows the importance of cooperation between various disciplines – e.g. psychology and pharmacology - in forensics. And that is what TMFI does: we bring together different types of specialties and expertise. ” Corine de Ruiter continues: “Judges will also benefit from the reports they get from trained forensic psychologists. Now, we sometimes feel sorry for the judge and the public prosecutor because they have to use elaborate but vague reports from the above mentioned 'ad-hoc experts'. Scientists are good at drawing up clear, well founded reports in which all hypotheses have been examined and rejected as false.”

Master’s programmes

What educational programmes on forensic psychology does TMFI offer? Harald Merckelbach: “We want to create quality in forensic psychology – to train young people to work in the field of criminal law. We already offer a one-year master’s programme called Psychology and Law that focuses on memory and the reliability of eyewitness reports.” Corine de Ruiter continues: “We have also developed a two-year master’s programme in Forensic Psychology. This programme will be more clinical in orientation, preparing students to perform risk assessments and provide therapy to forensic patients. This will be a selective master programme, for which we will recruit top students from all over the world. There is no similar programme in continental Europe. We hope to start in September 2010.”

The section has already been active for a few years. What has been achieved? Harald Merckelbach: “We write articles and books to share the knowledge we gathered from cases we studied. In January 2010, we will publish a new edition of the book ‘Het recht van binnen’ (about psychology and law), called ‘Reizen met mijn rechter’ (‘Traveling with my judge’). Everyone at Maastricht University who works in the field of psychology and law has contributed to this book. Also, quite a number of candidates have earned their PhD in the last couple of years.”

Corine de Ruiter is Professor of Forensic Psychology and Harald Merckelbach is Professor of Legal Psychology, both at the Department Experimental Clinical Psychology. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or +31 43 388 4344; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or +31 43 388 1945. ‘Het recht van binnen – Psychologie van het recht’ by Van Koppen P., Hessing D. and Merckelbach H.,Kluwer 2002, ISBN-13: 9789026840050. Information about the master’s programme: on the website under Prospective students/Master’s Programmes.

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