Experience Can Qualify an Individual as an Expert Witness and a Licensed Professional Counselor Can Provide Testimony That a Purported Victim of Child Sexual Abuse Suffers from PTSD
Hafemeister, Thomas L., Developments in Mental Health Law
Lay witnesses testifying in a court proceeding generally can only describe what they observed and are not allowed to give their opinions about inferences to be drawn from these observations. In contrast, expert witnesses may do so if their opinion addresses a matter that is not common knowledge or experience and it can be shown that they possess the qualifications needed to make them competent to testify as an expert on the matter. A question sometimes raised is whether experience alone, without specific education or training, can qualify a witness as an expert.
In a criminal case involving the alleged sexual abuse of a minor, the prosecution sought to introduce the opinion testimony of a licensed professional counselor who had treated the victim after the charged offense occurred. The witness testified the victim was experiencing moderately severe symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Counsel for the defense objected that a psychiatric diagnosis could only be made by a psychiatrist or a medical doctor and thus this witness was not qualified to offer an opinion as to the presence of this diagnosis.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Virginia noted that to be qualified as an expert under Virginia law the witness must have sufficient knowledge, skill, or experience on the subject matter of the inquiry. The court added that unless a statute either designates that an expert witness must have express qualifications (e.g., only a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist can conduct an evaluation of whether a defendant meets the requirements for an insanity defense) or requires an individual to be licensed before working in a particular field, the witness need not have specialized training in a particular field but may gain his or her expertise solely through work experience. …