BACKGROUND: Intervention studies for depression and intimate partner violence (IPV) commonly incorporate screening to identify eligible participants. The challenge is that current ethical evaluation is largely informed by the four principle approach applying principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, and respect for justice and autonomy. We examine three intervention studies for IPV, postnatal depression (PND) and depression that used screening from the perspective of principlism, followed by the perspective of a narrative and relational approach. We suggest that a narrative and relational approach to ethics brings to light concerns that principlism can overlook. DISCUSSION: The justification most commonly used to incorporate screening is that the potential benefits of identifying intervention efficacy balance the risk of individual harm. However, considerable risks do exist. The discovery of new information may result in further depression or worries, people might feel burdened, open to further risk, unsure of whether to disclose information to family members and disappointed if they are allocated to a control group. This raises questions about study design and whether the principle of equipoise remains an adequate justification in studies with vulnerable groups. In addition, autonomy is said to be respected because participants give informed consent to participate. However, the context of where recruitment is undertaken has been shown to influence how people make decisions. SUMMARY: The four principles have been subjected to criticisms in recent years but they remain prominent in public health and medical research. We provide a set of simple, interrogative questions that are narrative and relationally driven which may assist to further evaluate the potential impacts of using screening to identify eligible research participants in intervention studies. A narrative and relational based approach requires seeing people as situated within their social and cultural contexts, and as existing within relationships that are likely to be affected by the results of screening information.