Ethics Rounds

The Ethics Code Task Force and its chair, Celia Fisher, PhD, committed themselves to engaging APA members and groups fully throughout the process of revising the APA Ethics Code. The inclusive approach that the task force adopted was recognized when APA's Council of Representatives unanimously adopted the new code in August of 2002.

Whether by providing multiple comments on various drafts, as did the Committee on Legal Issues (COLI), making division officers available for direct and extensive feedback to the task force chair, as did APA's Div. 41 (Ameri-can Psychology-Law Society) or having Div. 41 members serve on the task force and the Ethics Committee (the task force's parent committee), during the revision process, APA groups and individuals with expertise in forensic matters provided important and substantial help as the task force developed a new code of ethics that would speak to our entire profession.

The task force determined that it would write ethical standards "broadly, in order to apply to psychologists in varied roles" (from the Introduction and Applicability section). Such breadth in writing standards means that "the application of an Ethical Standard may vary according to the context" (ibid). In keeping with this principle, the task force did not include a separate section on Forensic Activities in the revised code. Rather, the task force carefully determined where aspects of the Forensic Activities section of the 1992 code properly belonged in a new code that would speak to all psychologists, rather than to a specific subgroup.

Three examples illustrate how the task force retained important concepts from the Forensic Activities section of the 1992 Ethics Code and incorporated those concepts into the new code. In the 1992 code, Forensic Standard 7.06, Compliance with Law and Rules, required that psychologists, when performing forensic roles, be reasonably familiar with relevant judicial or administrative rules. The new code retains virtually the same language, but places this concept in the section on competence. Paragraph (f) of Standard 2.01, Boundaries of Competence, in the new code reads: "When assuming forensic roles, psychologists are or become reasonably familiar with the judicial or administrative rules governing their roles." Thus, the wording of the 1992 code is retained, having been placed in the revised code's broader language and given an intellectually sound context.

A second example arises in the new standard on multiple relationships. The former forensic Standard 7.03, Clarification of Role, began "In most circumstances, psychologists avoid performing multiple and potentially conflicting roles in forensic matters." Standard 7.03 then stated that when circumstances did force a psychologist into conflicting roles in a legal setting, psychologists clarified role and confidentiality expectations. By removing the first sentence of Standard 7.03, which began, "In most circumstances...," the task force made the standard more absolute and clear.

The task force then took the central concept of Standard 7.03 and placed it in the new code's section on multiple relationships, Standard 3.05, the final paragraph of which reads, "When psychologists are required by law, institutional policy or extraordinary circumstances to serve in more than one role in judicial or administrative proceedings, at the outset they clarify role expectations and the extent of confidentiality and thereafter as changes occur." As in the example above regarding knowledge of rules, the task force in this instance took language from the forensic section of the former code and used that language, with its central concept intact, in a new standard that would speak to all psychologists, not solely--but including--those engaged in forensic activities.

A third example is found in the new code's assessment section, Section 9. Standard 9.01, Bases for Assessments, is an amalgam of new material and material derived from standards in the 1992 code's section titled Evaluation, Assessment or Intervention, and most especially from the former code's forensic section.


(a) Psychologists base the opinions contained in their recommendations, reports, and diagnostic or evaluative statements, including forensic testimony, on information and techniques sufficient to substantiate their findings. (See also Standard 2.04, "Bases for Scientific and Professional Judgments."

(b) Except as noted in 9.01c, psychologists provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions. When, despite reasonable efforts, such an examination is not practical, psychologists document the efforts they made and the result of those efforts, clarify the probable impact of their limited information on the reliability and validity of their opinions, and appropriately limit the nature and extent of their conclusions or recommendations. (See also Standards 2.01, "Boundaries of Competence," and 9.06, "Interpreting Assessment Results.")

(c) When psychologists conduct a record review or provide consultation or supervision and an individual examination is not warranted or necessary for the opinion, psychologists explain this and the sources of information on which they based their conclusions and recommendations.

Note three things about Standard 9.01. First, the material that forms this new standard centers upon a core idea--that psychologists make the bases for their assessments, including forensic assessments, adequate and clear. This clarity and adequacy assume different versions, depending upon the psychologist's particular purpose and circumstances. Regarding adequacy, paragraph (a) states that "information and techniques" that form the bases for psychologists' opinions must be "adequate to substantiate" the findings, while paragraph (b) states that opinions of an individual's psychological characteristics must be based upon an examination "adequate to support" the findings. Regarding clarity, paragraph (b) states that when an adequate examination is not practical despite reasonable efforts, psychologists document their efforts to obtain the examination, clarify the impact of their limited information and limit their conclusions or recommendations accordingly. Paragraph (c) emphasizes and elaborates the importance of clarity by stating that when conducting a record review, consultation or supervision--and an individual examination is not warranted or necessary--psychologists explain both that such an examination is neither warranted nor necessary and their sources of information. Thus, the standard as a whole offers variations on the central themes of adequacy and clarity.

Second, psychologists will exercise discretion and judgment in determining what constitutes an adequate basis for their opinions and appropriate clarity about the nature and limits of their data. For example, while psychologists do not provide a diagnosis solely on the basis of a record review without the benefit of a face-to-face interview, under certain circumstances a supervisor may, without having personally examined an individual, sign a report that provides a diagnosis. As another example, psychologists will determine what techniques and information are necessary to support a conclusion; a Rorschach and MMPI could not form the sole bases for a custody recommendation but could be used clinically to assess the presence of psychotic thought processes or certain types of psychopathology. Psychologists rely on their background, training, experience and knowledge of the research and literature to apply Standard 9.01 in their specific circumstances.

The third and final point about Standard 9.01 is that the task force takes concepts from the former code, most especially the forensic section of the 1992 code, and groups these concepts together to create an intellectual home with like-minded material in the new code. The former forensic section, 1992 Standard 7.02, Forensic Assessments, forms the heart of new Standard 9.01, Bases for Assessments. Added to the former Standard 7.02 is material from the former assessment section as well as new material. The result is a standard that retains central concepts from the 1992 forensic section and elaborates upon those concepts to offer a new standard that applies to assessment activities--including but not limited to forensic assessment activities--across the profession as a whole.

Through the five-year process that produced seven revision drafts, the task force received over 1,400 comments. The task force ensured essential concepts from the former code's forensic section were retained, while at the same time offering to APA's council a code that would be "written broadly, in order to apply to psychologists in varied roles," across the entire range of what we psychologists do.

Further Reading

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