The Interaction between Ethics and the Law: The Ongoing Refinement of Ethical Standards for Psychologists in Canada

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Abstract

The link between legal and ethical principles is clear and strong. Given the differences in law that exist between nations, it is important to have the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, a made-in-Canada code that can be responsive to developments in Canadian law relating to ethical principles. The authors discuss the relationship between the law and ethics, starting with a review of the options available for controlling the conduct of psychologists. They then demonstrate how the law influences the development and implementation of ethical standards by both deriving the principles of professional ethics and by reshaping the parameters of conduct by psychologists. The authors show that acting ethically generally leads to acting legally, an vice versa. A review of recent Canadian cases in which the decisions of provincial disciplinary decisions for psychologists were considered demonstrate that, for the most part, courts uphold decisions by licensing boards, particularly those that have employed fair procedures that comport to the principles of natural justice. Finally, the authors point to the continued need for systematically monitoring legislation and legal decisions to determine their influence on our ethical principles, and note that there is a role for provincial and national psychology bodies to lobby legislators and to intervene in cases when matters are being considered that affect the ethical conduct of psychologists.

Despite the great differences that exist between law and professional ethics, at the most basic level both the law and ethics share two fundamental goals: The regulation of behaviour and the protection of society. The consideration of the tenth anniversary of the first edition of Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (1986/1991) necessarily requires that some attention be paid to the influence that the law has on ethics, and -- to a much lesser extent -- the effect that our ethics code has on the law. As this article will make clear, the line between the ethical regulation and the legal regulation of psychologists is blurred at best. Indeed, the law has considerable influence on both the behaviour of psychologists and the developments of the codes of professional ethics that have emerged in psychology.

From a legal perspective, the single most important contribution that the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (1991) has made is to provide us with a made-in-Canada code of ethics for Canadian psychologists. The borders between countries has little significance for psychology generally, particularly within North America and Western Europe. Indeed, the principles of learning or of human motivation and the like are just as relevant to people in Saskatoon as they are to those in Lincoln, Nebraska or Swansea, Wales. The same cannot be said for the law. There are considerable differences in both legal standards and legal procedures across national borders and legal jurisdictions. Further, the authority of cases decided by courts are limited to the legal jurisdiction over which the court has jurisdiction; therefore, decisions concerning the behaviour of psychologists in one nation -- or even within one province or state -- are not binding on other jurisdictions. Thus, to the extent that ethical principles must reflect and remain responsive to changes in law, it is critical that we in Canada have a national code of ethics. Although the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists has not yet been adopted by all of the provinces, it has been adopted by most and is sure to eventually become the national standard.(f.1)

Both the law and professional ethics may be considered attempts to articulate, interpret, operationalize, and resolve conflicts between ethical principles (and values) that have evolved throughout the history of humankind and are operationalized in a variety of ways both within societies and communities. …