Rise Up | How Trauma Impacts Survivors and What that means for Lawyers


The Rise Up series is a column that explores how the process of seeking justice can be a transformative tool to combat gender based crimes, while also recognising the survivor client’s agency, lived reality and desire for justice. The column explores the ways in which practitioners working or hoping to work in the field can adopt a gender sensitive lens in their work.

What is trauma?

Trauma stems from the overwhelming of coping mechanisms in response to perception or experience of extreme threat. Unlike ‘normal life stress’ (which is constant and experienced by everybody) the perception of extreme threat activates innate ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and/or ‘freeze’ responses which are protective at the time of the precipitating event(s) but which corrode health over time if the underlying trauma is not resolved. For those who live with the effects of unresolved trauma, ‘normal life stress’ can be profoundly destabilising, thus trapping them in a cycle of physical and psychological reactivity which is devastating to their well-being and to a wide spectrum of functioning.

Trauma stems from extreme stress but is highly prevalent. For most people, the word ‘trauma’ connotes single incidents and events (i.e. post-traumatic stress disorder; PTSD). But there is more to trauma than PTSD. It is important to distinguish between ‘single incident’ trauma (PTSD) and what is increasingly called ‘complex’ trauma (i.e. cumulative, underlying, and often interpersonally generated). In fact, ‘complex’ interpersonally generated trauma is not only more extensive in its impacts across a range of functioning, but is also more common. This means that it is more likely that you will come across it within legal and judicial contexts.

How might it manifest in your work as a lawyer?

Since complex trauma-related problems can be present in many guises, including risky and/or challenging behaviors, service-providers may not readily identify the trauma operative in the lives of their clients. Similarly, the unresolved trauma in the lives of many people who engage in various capacities with the legal system is not necessarily apparent to practitioners of law.

Some of the ways you may recognise trauma in your clients is

  • less or no willingness to talk about the incident
  • crying spells and emotional outbursts
  • expression of fear with the mention of perpetrator or the traumatic incident
  • frozen reaction/s to mention of the incident
  • heightened emotionality while talking about the incident
  • sometimes, the person may also experience symptoms of anxiety or panic (breathlessness, racing heart beat, sweaty palms, feeling nervous, expression of fearfulness)

The issue of ‘credibility is a key concept in relation to engagement with witnesses, victims and offenders alike (which is not to elide the important differences between them). Since interpersonally generated trauma stems from relational harm, traumatic responses ‘are deeply organised around disruption and disconnection’. This has a number of adverse consequences, not only for the management of stress but also for conceptions of self and others. The effects of overwhelming stress also impede the imparting of coherent narratives, such that the testimony and accounts of traumatised people can appear discursive, episodic, unreliable and even mendacious.

Taking a trauma-informed approach

A trauma-informed approach to law has numerous benefits in all domains.  Trauma-informed principles recognise the reality for clients as outlined above and enable provision of policies and modes of interaction conducive to stabilisation and safety. Thus testimony can be imparted in a context in which additional stress is minimised. This not only reduces the risk of retraumatisation, it also ensures that useful testimony is drawn out.

Current research into the neurobiology of memory also has major implications for the issue of ‘credibility’, and urgently needs to be made available to legal and judicial contexts. Understanding that memory does not relate solely to conscious recall, but stems from complex neural networks associated with different types of memory, is likewise critical to the pursuit and achievement of just outcomes.

‘Cooperation with authorities’ is less likely to occur in stressful situational contexts. Adherence to trauma-informed practice reduces stress not only for defendants, victims and witnesses but for the legal personnel who engage with them, as well as potentially leading to better outcomes.

Engagement with the law and justice system in any capacity is stressful for many members of the public. This is irrespective of the presence or absence of underlying trauma. How much higher are the stakes then (once again for all parties) when high stress levels are intrinsic to the nature of the encounter? The potential for heightened negative repercussions is thereby greatly increased.

Trauma-informed practice helps to defuse and de-escalate arousal. The attendant benefits flow in many directions. The FemJustice Legal Centre runs courses on applying a trauma-informed approach to your work if you want to find out more.

Pragya Lodha is a Volunteer at One Future Collective.

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