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History of Law & Psychiatry

The leadership in the division has been involved in major legislation and policy development. Much of this work comes through the professional organizations in medicine, psychiatry, and forensic psychiatry.

In the 1960s, the interface between psychiatry and law burgeoned as courts began to address the civil rights of psychiatric patients. Yale Department of Psychiatry faculty worked with the State Department of Mental Health along with patient advocates to draft Connecticut’s new civil commitment statute in the early 1970’s. The law was rewritten to change the standard from mentally ill and a “fit subject for confinement” to a “dangerous” or “gravely disabled” criteria. Yale psychiatry faculty also collaborated with the Yale Law School Jerome Frank Legal Services Office, who began representing hospitalized psychiatric patients seeking discharge from state mental hospitals. These collaborations and the agreement to perform the Competency to Stand Trial evaluations for the New Haven regional courts launched the Law and Psychiatry Division.

Now an internationally renowned program for educating forensic psychiatrists, the Division helps shape national and state policy and legislation related to the treatment of patients with mental illness in the community, hospitals, and prisons. The Division conducts forensic evaluations in criminal and civil cases and educates the legal and psychiatric community. The evolution of the Division has been inextricably linked to scientific, social, and legal developments in mental health services and the perception of mental illness. The Division has established programs, policy, and research in substance abuse and domestic violence, risk assessment, sex offender assessment, jail diversion, and other areas at the interface of psychiatry and law.

From the inception of the AAPL (American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law) in 1972, division faculty have been in leadership positions. The AAPL entered the Service and Specialty Society of the American Medical Association in 1997—with Drs. Phillips and Zonana as delegate and alternate delegate to the House of Delegates—when the organization was formally given a seat with voting privileges. The AAPL thereby gained a voice in developing the AMA’s ethics guidelines and new policies that affect the subspecialty. Yale’s delegation has become an integral part of the Psychiatric Caucus (comprising the American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Child Psychiatry, Addictions and Geriatrics, and Military Psychiatry) that has shaped policies on the insanity defense, expert witnesses, interrogation of detainees by psychiatrists, and review of expert testimony.