Forensic psychology has taken centre stage during recent high-profile court cases in South Africa, including the Oscar Pistorius trial. However, according to Franco Visser, a resident forensic psychology expert at Unisa whose expert opinion was widely published during the trial, South Africa simply does not have enough forensic psychologists to cope with the cases that require this expertise. Many clinical psychologists who are called on, do not have formal training in actual forensic psychology. Now, a forensic psychology course being mooted by Unisa hopes to respond to the need for more of these professionals.

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One of the few forensic psychology specialists in academia in South Africa, Visser has identified a clear need to create further opportunities for expert training in forensic psychology. “We intend to eventually establish a forensic programme that will include an undergraduate programme, and an honours qualification leading to a master’s degree and specialisation at doctoral level,” says Visser. “For the present, we are aiming to start implementing short learning programmes as soon as the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) activates the category of forensic psychology in full.”

In South Africa, forensic psychology is practised mostly by clinical psychologists, as it is considered a subspecialisation of clinical psychology.  While several universities offer psychology at a master’s and PhD level, not all of these universities have academic staff who are experts in forensic psychology and only a small group of psychologists work in the field of forensic psychology through research only. Although it is not yet possible to register officially as a forensic psychologist, the HPCSA is currently finalising the details of this category and defining the scope of practise, opening the way for formal academic programmes.

The proposed course at Unisa also has yet to be approved by the HPCSA, but psychology students are already receiving some training in the field from Franco Visser, as well as colleagues Elmarie Visser and Nikki Themistocleous.  “I shifted from practice at the forensic unit at the Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital to Unisa as I wanted to be more involved with student training and development,” says Visser. “Part of my appointment here is to strengthen the forensic output and the neuropsychology output as it is becoming a specialised field that will need its own course and curriculum.”

A critical aspect of the Unisa forensic psychology course will be community engagement, as it is in current courses. Psychology students receive two years of training at Unisa and have extensive exposure to community outreach clinics. Says Visser: “Unisa is one of the few universities in the country that strongly links community service clinics with the specialised forensic training offered to master’s students studying clinical psychology. We are arranging more courses and clinics every year and continuing to expand community service. Unisa has powerful service delivery in terms of reaching out to communities and giving free assessments and reports within structured settings. It is one of the few universities in the country that has a strong link to community service clinics.”

Visser explains that the specialist field has a wide application in the justice system in family, civil and criminal courts. “Forensic psychologists may be called on to provide sentencing recommendations or treatment recommendations, as in the case of Oscar Pistorius. Information regarding mitigating factors, assessment of future risk and evaluation of witness credibility is also often required. Forensic psychologists are often involved in custody disputes, insurance claims and lawsuits. Some professionals perform child custody evaluations, investigate reports of child abuse and conduct visitation risk assessments. Forensic psychology also involves training and evaluating police or other law enforcement personnel,” says Visser.  “There is no doubt that forensic psychologists can make a powerful contribution to South African society and we need to provide the academic support to drive excellence in the field.”

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