“Law is born from the despair of human nature “. – José Ortega y Gasset 

As controversial as it sounds, a substantial amount of truth lies in it. Psychology and law are different yet relevant when applied together. The very existence of law and the relevance of the same, throughout history is only because it essentially sets boundaries for our societies to function.

Law gives out guidelines of conduct, restricts, punishes, and protects us as it ultimately intends to provide a better way of life. Its nature is objective but the effects of the same are subjective as it creates a very obvious yet inevitable contrast between the two.

This is where psychology comes in; psychology in the most literal sense means ‘the study of human mind’ and thus it is quite very bound to happen that anything and everything which is remotely related to mankind and their way of life will have its associations with it.

Countless associations have been made amongst both, by scholars to correlate them. One such is the ‘Behaviorist’ theory stated by John B Watson which gives a better understanding of classical conditioning of the human mind. The infamous ‘Little Albert’ experiment becomes a useful illustration here to understand the fact that human behaviour is either a reflex to a stimulus or an outcome of past incidents a little better.

Retributive & deterrent punishments eventually work out along these same lines, although obviously when generalized.  Retributive punishments work as the stimulus and general deterrence is the reflex evoked by it.

In layman’s words, actions rewarded by punishments often put out a clear message which discourages the general public to go on with the same actions. It is classical conditioning that makes the public aware, if not responsible of the consequences.

As much as full proof all of this sounds yet there are many criticisms related to the retributive theory. The most prominent of which is that this theory, because of its very subjective nature, has proved itself to be more moral than legal. Though it seems just and fair on paper but in reality, it is useless and hollow. 

Jeremy Bentham provided a theory that somehow contrasts with the previous theory when he stated that all punishments are inherently evil and required justifications. The famous philosopher and acclaimed jurist was also a theorist of punishment as he insisted that every law should be evaluated using his theory of ‘utilitarianism’ as the context.

He once stated that ‘every law is an infraction of liberty which sums up his take on the matter of how a law is good only if it results in the general happiness of the population. Bentham was the greatest legal positivist of Britain.

Apart from him, John Austin was a jurist too who was heavily associated with legal positivism. Austin typically argued that laws were a set of commands and the people were to obey them and in case of any misdemeanour, they would be liable for punishments which he referred to as ‘sanctions’.

Austin aimed at transforming law into science and thus tried to reason and define all theories into valid standards. These theories ultimately resulted to be the greatest criticisms of his approach because this notion completely ignored the moral aspect of law.

He along with Bentham was a believer in utilitarianism. It was the work of John Austin which laid the roots and foundations of legal jurisprudence, and due to his exemplary contribution, he was awarded the title ‘father of English jurisprudence’.   

The studies on the topic are not limited just to the past. Concurrently, American Psychology-Law is a division-41 of the multidisciplinary American Psychology Association. There are two main modern subdivisions of psychology that particularly affect law and justice. They are legal and Forensic psychology and both of them combined from law & psychology.

The former by its definition means involving empirical psychological research to legal institutions and people who come in contact with it. Legal psychology is applied to court cases, judgments, etc. In the most generic form, it studies the thoughts, feelings, and motives of the people who are a part of the justice system, therefore, it is also known as juridical psychology.

This very feature distinguishes it from forensic psychology.

On the contrary, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined forensic psychology as the application of clinical specialties to the legal arena. The discussion about the subdivision of law and psychology has been in the air recently and this is because of its increasing relevance.

It is a relatively new science but its foundations go way back to the year 1879 when German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt founded his very first laboratory. Later on, it was due to the accounts of Hugo Munsterberg, a German psychologist, stating that psychology was directly correlated with education, law, and industries for the very first time.

James McKeen Cattell too created a household name for himself in the field of forensic psychology based on his research on the psychology of testimony.

Forensic psychology takes the cognitive notions of clinical psychology and applies them to the legal arena. Forensic psychologists are thoroughly trained to have good communication, writing, interviewing, and clinical skills.

They have to evaluate the criminal defendants, counsel the victims of crime, implement treatment programs for juveniles and even play an important role in the custody trials of children during divorce regularly. Forensic psychologists have to continuously evaluate people indirectly or directly who are involved with the legal system and therefore it is of utmost necessity that they are well versed with their craft.

The earliest figure of British forensic psychology was Lionel Haward. He discovered that psychology could be helpful during court proceedings. He was the expert witness in many court trials, including the landmark Oz Magazine Case; which was in fact the longest obscenity trial in Britain’s history.

Forensic psychology is an invariable part of criminal law thus, its references are also widely useful during courtroom confessions, convictions and it also helps evaluate the eyewitness’ testimonies. This factor is a big deal when the judgment is being pronounced.

Psychological researcher Elizabeth Loftus in her Eye Witness Testimony proves that eyewitnesses are not always reliable and memory and its interpretations are always subjective because human beings don’t always record chunks of codes and data. Humans analyze and interpret memories and therefore, their testimonies cannot be taken as the word of truth.

This wasn’t the first time someone had questioned the accuracy of memory. Psychologists such as Albert Binet and William Stern conducted various studies on human memory.

Loftus-Palmer experiments have a huge impact on the criminal justice system. These experiments exposed threats such as the witnesses could be led on either intentionally or unintentionally. Therefore, to avoid such situations, legal psychologists and forensic psychologists in some cases, are allowed to attend the court systems as advisory bodies.

They provide insight and input based on their expertise which helps the court get a better perspective. Legal psychologists in the United States do this through the aegis of Rule 37.

‘Brief for an Amicus Curiae ‘ . Amicus Curiae are an opportunity for third parties who are in no way associated with the issue in hand so that they can give their perspective on the ongoing litigation and therefore, its literal translation is “the friend of the court”.

Although in India Amicus Curiae is usually an advocate appointed by the court in case the accused is unrepresented, but shouldn’t imply anything more or less. There are separate provisions for when there is a larger public interest in question.

The S.45-51 of the Indian Evidence Act,1872; provide a clear scope and criteria under which the testimonies of the experts are admissible and relevant in the Indian courts of justice.

 Established universities across the globe have even taken the initiative to introduce legal psychology combined into a joint degree. Since the formation of the American Psychological Association, a lot of graduation and post-graduation training programs have grown since then.

Forensic psychologists, cognitive psychologists, development and social psychologists are related to law and its functioning. However, they should be well trained in their area of specialization.

Moreover, even though there are multiple historic accounts of psychology, it nevertheless is still a comparatively new science. On the other hand, the law is ever-changing and evolving. Both psychology and law have their separate ways but the overreaching ultimate goal is to benefit society.

Throughout the history of time, philosophers, jurists, and psychologists have argued, proved, and insisted on their correlations which even in the present day are very much relevant. Therefore, about all the researches, facts, and proven theories, mentioned throughout, it is only fair to conclude that; law and psychology do indeed have an inseparable correlation with each other.

By Nancy Bavishi, 3rd Year B.A.LL.B (Hons.), Faculty of Law, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara