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Handbook of Forensic Psychiatric Practice in Capital Cases


Aims


A psychiatric report should not simply describe the subject’s diagnosis, if there be such. It should describe all relevant, sometimes complex, psychiatric issues, including diagnosis and the effects of diagnosis, also formulation, and explain the relevance of these descriptions to providing answers to the legal questions that are at issue. Beyond this, however, it should also tell the story of the defendant’s life in a way that is structured, comprehensible and comprehensive.


Tere must be sufficient detailing of the information that has been relied on in reaching conclusions, in order that the reader can see the rationale for the opinion expressed; that is, the report must be reasoned. And it should be prepared and written with non-medical readers in mind. Usually, the audience in the first instance will be the defendant’s legal representatives, other lawyers and the judge; in other words, intelligent laymen but with little knowledge of medicine and psychiatry. Te report will also form the basis of your oral evidence to the jury, and should be written with this in mind.


Of course, the report is designed to assist the Court and not the instructing party. And it will therefore need to demonstrate ‘the three I’s’ of being an expert witness: that is, impartiality (and the appearance of impartiality), independence and integrity.


General advice Structuring the report is key to achieving the foregoing aims


First, data and opinion should not occur in the same sections of the report. Te data used, and relied upon, should be clearly laid out, and kept separate from the opinion expessed upon that information. Further, the Court needs to be able to identify where each piece of information used in the report came from, since source may imply level of reliability and validity, and since some information may be in dispute and subject to determination by the court. Where this is known by the author, it may be necessary to express ‘conditional’ opinions, in terms such as: ‘If the court decides X is correct, then my opinion is A, if Y then B’. Also, whilst short reports are to be preferred (and are more likely to be read), they need to contain sufficient information to justify the opinion expressed. Reference to information which goes against the author’s opinion should also be included, with explanation of how s/he comes to his view. Breaking the report down into sections therefore allows for categorisation separately of data from opinion, and of one source of information against another; it will also assist others to read the report efficiently.


Some authors prefer to number paragraphs. Tis has advantages, notably that specific passages can be easily referred to in court, making it easier for the author of the report to avoid appearing muddled when under pressure. However, numbered paragraphs can make a report clunky and lifeless, and detract from the flow of the narrative.


Long sentences are hard to read. A psychiatric report is not a work of literature, and clarity is the over-riding goal. Simple and short sentences are to be preferred. Also, any technical terms used should be immediately explained (a bracket with explanation placed after first use of the term is convenient). Finally, ambiguity is a plague to be avoided at all costs; the aim should be that any single sentence is open to only one interpretation.


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