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Forensic Dual Relationships: Treating Psychotherapists as Expert Witnesses

1 CE Credits/Hours - Online Course - $19.00

Developed by Donald A. Eisner, Ph.D., J.D.

Course fulfills, fully or in part, the Ethics & Law requirements for psychologists in CA and for psychologists, social workers, counselors, and addiction counselors in other states. Verify requirements with your state board. Course may qualify for insurance discount. Check with your insurer.

This course is also offered as part of an Advanced Ethics Certificate Program of 71 CE Credits.

See our extensive 16 CE online course Forensic Psychology: Introduction and Overview

This course includes materials consisting of:

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General Course Description

This unique short course focuses on situations where psychotherapists or counselors serve as expert witnesses in court. Such a dual role has been dubbed forensic dual relationship or forensic multiple relationship. Many psychotherapists, counselors and other mental health practitioners are neither aware of the numerous issues involved in such dual relationships nor always see it coming. A treating therapist does not necessarily know in advance if their patient will be involved in litigation and may not know how to respond when they are being called to testify in a case that may involve personal injury or medical malpractice.

In a litigated case, it is quite routine for an attorney to seek out forensic mental health experts. It is also quite common for attorneys to contact a treating therapist. Thus, under what circumstance, if any, should a treating therapist provide expert witness in the same case? In the forensic arena, there are many risks when an attorney calls the treating therapist and asks them to become an expert witness. Upon undertaking a new role, the therapist may enter into an improper or unethical dual relationship. The psychotherapist or counselor's role is that of a patient advocate, which often presents irreconcilable conflict with the objective-evaluative role of a forensic expert. Psychotherapists are generally biased in favor of their clients, while forensic experts are committed to a truthful, objective and unbiased reporting to the court. As a result, there are several serious ethical and legal implications when serving either simultaneously or successively as a treater and expert witness in the same case. The forensic-therapist dual relationship often presents conflicts of interest and, as a result, is often unethical and should be avoided under most circumstances.

This course reviews certain situations where therapists may end up in a forensic multiple role. A few examples: psychotherapist voluntarily agrees to switch roles from a treater to an expert witness and to testify on behalf of their client in order to be 'helpful' to the client. The current therapist may terminate a patient and assume that there is no ethical problem in testifying as an expert. Another area of concern is if the therapist is subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness. A third area of vulnerability for a treating clinician occurs when they are subtlety or abruptly pulled into the role of an expert during a deposition.

This introductory, short one (1) credit course specializes in the topic of forensic dual or multiple relationships. This course is comprised of two articles, summary of codes of ethics on the topic, a bibliography and online resources. The first article describes the four traps into which a forensic psychologist can fall during cross examination. It gives a detailed account of how they occur so therapists serving as expert witnesses may avoid them. The second article explores issues of serving as an expert witness specific to the treating therapist: When to serve as an expert witness, how to do so ethically, and how to handle being addressed as an expert witness when one is on the stand as a treating therapist. These are followed by a list of comprehensive, relevant articles and online resources.

Educational Objectives

This course will teach psychotherapists to:

1.    Appraise the pitfalls into which a forensic psychologist can fall.

2.    Report on the circumstances and manner in which a therapist can serve as an expert witness ethically and legally.

3.    Explain the circumstances under which a treating therapist can serve as an expert witness and how this should be done in terms of ethics and legality.

Course Syllabus

Testifying Effectively and Gaining Credibility

  • Handling depositions
    • Details on the traps into which a therapist on the stand can fall
    • Case exploration: Examples of circumstances in which various actions are or are not ethical, legal and appropriate
    • Tips on improving courtroom performance

Considerations of the Treating Therapist

  • The ethics and appropriateness of terminating therapy in order to serve as an expert witness
  • Refusing to testify
  • How to handle being asked expert witness questions when not on the stand for that role

Codes of Ethics and Guidelines

  • Review of some the major professional associations codes of ethics and guidelines regarding psychotherapists serving as expert witnesses

Online Resources

  • Comprehensive list of the most useful articles and online resources on the topics covered in this course
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