Trauma? What Trauma?

Trauma? What Trauma?

Since the end of last year, I have spoken with more than 160 SRL’s and we have dozens more waiting for an interview to be scheduled (and keep coming! we shall be interviewing through October).

There has been an astonishing amount of consistency among these experiences. Whether in family or civil court, the experiences described in our 45-60 minute long interviews bear many similarities. Listening to the stories I am told, I keep feeling that I have heard this over and over (but I’m still listening!)

I am going to write some blogs over the next few weeks which highlight the themes that are emerging. Sometimes I shall share a particular story that exemplifies these themes. I hope that this is a way of other SRL’s feeling that they are not alone – and to begin to present the real life experiences to those working in the justice system and the policymakers who will make decisions about the future shape of the legal system.

The first topic – and the subject of this blog – is what some people are calling “post traumatic court syndrome”. This is only partly tongue-in-cheek. Many of the people I have talked to describe one or more of the following reactions – reminiscent of PTSS – to being a self-represented litigant: sleepless nights; high levels of anxiety; inability to think about anything other than the legal case and socialize normally with family and friends; stress leading to depression; and difficulty being within a physical proximity of anything that reminds the person of their court experience such as particular websites, the local courthouse, or even their computer.

Words usually frequently by SRL’s to describe their experience include “humiliating”, “traumatic”, “terrifying”, and “overwhelming”. Two thirds of our sample to date has a university education, many are professionals who are accustomed to speaking publicly, and some of these have some prior experience with the legal system. Many of these individuals comment “If this is impossible for me, what is it like for someone with no experience of speaking in front of others/ who have a first language other than English or French/ who is entirely unfamiliar with the legal system?”

Resolving disputes over personal family matters, or managing conflicts that arise in the course of business dealings, is by its nature going to be a stressful process. None of the SRL’s I have interviewed expected that their road would be an easy one, but none imagined the amount of additional stress and anxiety that would be added to their burden as a result of trying to manage our justice system without technical support or coaching assistance.

If you are a lawyer reading this, I invite you to watch the SRL’s you see every day you go to your local courthouse and consider what they are really dealing with – beyond the presentation they make in the courtroom, or the form they just filed, or the nervous and perhaps testy interaction you just had with them on behalf of your client.

If you are a policymaker, what does it mean for our publicly funded system of justice that such damage is being done to many of those who are representing themselves? What does this mean for the design of future fora that encourage self representation (such as the new BC Civil Resolutions Tribunal)?

Can we envisage a courthouse in the future which welcomes SRL’s and enables them to feel supported rather than “…as if we are being punished for not being able to afford a lawyer”?

Please send me your thoughts and comments.

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