The evolving role of the Psychologist in Irish Law

The evolving role of the Psychologist in Irish Law

gavelIn a system that is presented every day with complex and challenging issues relating to human behaviour, expert psychological input can serve to be invaluable in Irish law. However, the Irish court system, particularly in regards to family law, has been deemed as inadequate and insensitive to the promotion of justice, and to the psychological and emotional needs of vulnerable groups, such as children. In this vein, the role of the psychologist in Irish law, the shortcomings of the Irish court system, and the potential for change through the lens of psychological theory and input will be examined.

Although law and psychology are perceived as two separate disciplines, in reality they both share several commonalities, as both fields make assumptions about what causes people to act in certain ways. However, while the role of law is to regulate human behaviour, the function of psychology is to understand it. As you can imagine, there are numerous situations where both must work in tandem, as the regulation of human behaviour and assessing outcomes for legal cases often involves being confronted with emotive and sensitive issues that require an in-depth understanding of psychological processes, and what may enhance or hinder human dignity. In cases that involve such complex issues, the input of experienced psychological expertise is invaluable.

Indeed, the role of the psychologist in Irish law is multifaceted, and is still evolving. For example, in civil cases, psychologists may be engaged as experts to assess emotional factors and psychological issues related to personal injury litigation, such as post-traumatic stress, depression, chronic pain or anxiety. Psychologists can also be involved in the assessment of psychological factors related to bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace, discrimination issues, and psychological disability. Psychologists may also be asked to evaluate the impact of victimization related to a criminal act, and provide counselling and psychotherapy to victims.

scales of justiceIn criminal cases, the experienced psychologist’s expertise is often invaluable to the court. Psychological evaluation of a defendant’s history and current mentality may aid in identifying psychological issues underlying criminal acts, and may inform treatment recommendations, which are often an important part of any plea agreements. For example, a juvenile delinquent from a low socio-economic background with a history of neglect may be required to attend counselling Additionally, psychologists provide counselling and psychotherapy for individuals accused of criminal acts, and for the victims of crimes, especially for those of a violent or sexual nature.

Psychological consultation in family law is particularly complex, as outcomes that are in the best interest of the child are the psychologist’s ethical priority. Psychologists are often requested to provide custody or visitation evaluations to determine what arrangement is best for the child. Psychologists also provide family counselling, parenting skills training, therapeutic supervised visitation, anger management, divorce adjustment counselling, and parental communication skills training.

However, Irish law in practice does not always serve to promote and maintain human dignity. Little improvement has been made to Irish court law since the 1996 report of the Law Reform Commission, which stated that the Irish family law system was in “crisis”, and many have argued in recent years for an urgent change in the Irish family court system.

Indeed, Roisín O’Shea (2014) indicated in her extensive empirical review on Irish family court, that outcomes for children, separated fathers and foreign nationals leave much to be desired. O’Shea also concluded from interviews with Judges who hear family law cases, that the majority indicated an intense dislike for the emotional context of family law, and stated that they found disputes over arrangements for children difficult and sometimes distasteful. O’Shea’s findings indicate a worrying ignorance of the emotional and psychological dynamics of relationship breakdown, and an absence of judicial training.

Indeed, the Judge in family law cases generally acts as the sole arbiter. Research in social psychology also indicates that subjective mental processes have a significant impact on our decision making, especially when such processes aren’t brought to our awareness. Because of these mental short-cuts we use in everyday life, we exhibit a tendency to pay increased attention to information which is in line with our own values and beliefs. ( Judges are thus charged with carrying out resolution processes in a fair, impartial and efficient manner). (Naughton et al 2015)

Further, the issue of over-subjectivity in court becomes more salient when we look at Irish court outcomes. Indeed, research indicates that Irish family court Judges display a commitment to the traditional family unit (Naughton et al., 2015).

psychology-psiThese issues raise many questions regarding the future role of the psychologist in Irish family law, from one where the role, although multi-faceted, is regarded as peripheral, to one, which will underpin the framework from which Judges and other court staff will inform their outlook and decisions. Indeed, training and insights into emotional and psychological processes such as attachment and trauma should be prerequisites for any professional dealing with sensitive and life-altering issues regarding children. Although psychologists aren’t exempt themselves from allowing subjective processes and prejudices to influence their decisions and behaviours, it is hoped that through training and bringing such processes to conscious awareness, Judges and other court staff will be encouraged to avoid faulty decision making that adversely impacts families and individuals in family court. In the promotion of justice, dignity and equality, both disciplines should strive to work in unison, as the absence of emotional and psychological knowledge in litigation is having stark consequences on those who are most vulnerable.


Dr. Gillian Moore-Groarke, Consultant/Registered Psychologist and expert witness.

Ms. Amy-Rose Hayes, Psychology Graduate PSI., 5A Harley Court, Wilton, Cork. Tel 021-4343073


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