Forensic SLPs: Speech Language Pathologists as Expert Witnesses

Medical issues of almost any sort are expensive, life-changing events, and speech and language disorders are no different. It’s inevitable that cases sometimes end up in court. The causes of action can vary widely and include:

  • Malpractice lawsuits
  • Insurance company claim disputes
  • Personal injury cases
  • Special education and disability benefit hearings

Forensic speech language pathologists provide expert witness services in these cases. They may be asked by either party in a civil suit or criminal trial to testify as to the facts of speech language difficulties and treatments, as well as to the origins and prognosis in such cases.

SLPs working in this capacity are not only expected to have expert knowledge of the processes and protocols involved in SLP therapy, but they also need to be able to explain these matters to a judge and jury in such a way that a layman can understand them and use them as a yardstick by which to measure legal claims.

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What’s Driving the Growing Demand For Forensic SLPs?

ASHA, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, evaluated forensic SLP as an Expanding area of clinical practice. Although not a new practice area, ASHA found that demand for forensic SLPs was increasing and recommended that additional education and development resources be made available in the field.

Forensic SLPs also find work as consultants in legal and insurance cases, even when those cases don’t go to trial. In fact, expert advice from an experienced SLP can make all the difference in whether or not a case is settled or has to be taken to court in the first place. Understanding the relative strengths and merits of underlying speech and language issues can heavily influence the decisions attorneys on both sides of a case make about how to proceed.

Counterintuitively, medical malpractice claims in the United States have been dropping since the early 1990s. But the average payout has increased, up by $66,000 over that same period, making expert witnesses even more valuable. And with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, the obligation of schools to provide a suitable learning environment for students with disabilities has created an upswing in the demand for evaluations of kids with autism and other disorders that often come with speech and language issues.

Although it’s a competitive business, forensic speech language pathology offers flexibility and a change of pace. It may not be an entry-level career path, but it is one to consider once your position in the field is well-established.

Forensic SLP is an Uncommon Role That Requires an Unusual Pedigree

Becoming a forensic speech pathologist requires legal and psychological knowledge as well as expertise in speech language pathology. Forensic SLPs have to be able to keep their cool on the witness stand while undergoing hostile cross-examination. They need to understand how to structure arguments and phrase answers to be persuasive to laypersons on a jury. They may need to assist in preparing exhibits to illustrate issues that are better visualized than explained.

They also have to have enough basic legal knowledge to understand what issues do and do not matter at trial. They should understand where the burden of proof lies in legal matters and what the standards of evidence are for the current venue.

There are no essential qualifications for consulting or testifying as an SLP beyond your own expertise, but there are many certifications available that claim to prepared expert witnesses from any field for work in the courtroom. These should be viewed cautiously, however. Ultimately, it’s your SLP credentials that are most important.

Most Forensic SLPs Go Solo

Working as a forensic consultant usually also means running your own shop. Most SLPs who work in forensics have their own businesses.

It’s rare for SLPs to specialize exclusively in forensics. For the purposes of maintaining your credibility and simply to stay current in the field, you’ll need to continue to practice regularly in your own specialty. In fact, it’s most likely that becoming a highly recognized practitioner with expertise in a certain specialty will lead into forensic work, rather than the other way around.

Forensic SLPs also have to be able to directly evaluate patients. Although in some cases they may work from case notes and other medical records, most of the time they are expected to perform their own evaluation and report what they have observed directly.

Name recognition and reputation may be the most important ways to develop a forensic SLP element to your business. Becoming a common referral point in your community for tricky cases will almost certainly lead to lawyers knocking on your door for expert opinions.