ABA ROLI Supports Trauma-Informed Lawyering for GBV Survivors
For survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), it is critical that their legal representatives recognize the role that trauma plays in the lawyer-client relationship and their ability to engage effectively in the criminal justice process. In late 2021, ABA ROLI worked with lawyers in Jordan to help them to understand trauma and its impact on survivors of GBV, and how to adapt to incorporate trauma-informed lawyering into their practice.
Although Jordan has adopted several legislative reforms and made progress creating survivor protections, survivors of GBV still face significant barriers in access to justice. Strict curfews and nationwide lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this pattern with rates of domestic violence increasing by 33 percent while shelters were closed, and service providers more difficult to reach.[i] The Preventing and Responding to Gender-Based Violence in Jordan initiative, in the WAGE Consortium, works with local partners, Solidarity Is Global Institute Jordan (SIGI) and Family Guidance and Awareness Center (FGAC), to support vulnerable women and girls and to ensure GBV survivors are aware of and can access holistic services.
A key area of focus for the program is increasing access to holistic legal services for survivors of GBV. In mid-2021, ABA ROLI met with partners SIGI and FGAC, and with the Justice Center for Legal Aid (JCLA), to identify how best to support legal service providers working on GBV cases. Discussions concluded that Jordanian lawyers representing survivors have a strong understanding of the law but are less familiar with the impact of trauma on the brain and subsequently on a person’s actions and behavior. With support from partners, ABA ROLI designed and delivered the training Gender-Based Violence and Trauma-Informed Lawyering for lawyers in Jordan.
”Trauma” refers to the neurobiological impact of an experience on the brain causing it to process those experiences differently. During a traumatic event, the part of our brain responsible for logical thinking and planning is impaired and the brain activates automatic response systems. A person experiencing trauma will fall back on reflex responses such as freezing and disassociation, or default to habit responses learned through social conditioning or past experiences. Our brains also process traumatic memories differently to other memories and is not capable of organizing traumatic memories in an organized, logical, and linear manner. Instead, the memories may be fragmented, confused and difficult to recall. These neurobiological responses to trauma each play a role in limiting GBV survivors abilities to engage in the criminal justice system.
For years the criminal justice system has favoured the perfect victim – looking for signs that a survivor resisted GBV, sought help immediately, and could provide a clear and detailed account of the violence they experience. But the perfect victim does not exist and legal systems throughout the world continue to fail survivors of GBV, partly evidenced, by the uniformly low rates of prosecution and conviction. Trauma-informed lawyering seeks to address this by equipping legal professionals with the knowledge and skills they need to adapt their practice to meet their traumatized client’s needs and support them to navigate criminal justice system. ABA ROLI’s training was one of the first of its kind for lawyers representing survivors of GBV in Jordan.
Sixteen lawyers from across Jordan attended the four-part training in September led by ABA ROLI’s expert consultant, Heather Huhtanen. The first session covered foundational topics. Participants looked at the link between cultural norms and gender stereotypes, and GBV. They discussed how implicit bias leads to biased judgments and began to unpack how gender inequality, supported by traditional gender roles and socio-cultural religious attitudes, is the root cause of GBV. The second part of that session focused on GBV as a learned behavior and a means to establish and maintain power and control over others. Ms. Huhtanen introduced participants to the Power and Control Wheel, which sets out the different ways a perpetrator may seek to exert power and control over his victim.[ii] Understanding how power and control can manifest in a relationship can help lawyers to build stronger cases by asking the right questions when interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence to identify prior behavior that may have been unreported or even unrecognized as violence.
Although lawyers are trained to understand justice in the context of a courtroom, when representing survivors of GBV it is also important that they understand what justice means for their client. A survivor-centered approach to lawyering envisions justice from a needs perspective which asks, “what does the survivor need on a short, medium and long-term basis?” and “how do their needs relate to justice?”. In the second session of the training, the lawyers were asked to reflect on those questions alone with six guiding principles of survivor-centered lawyering.
To help the lawyers understand the physical and psychological barriers their clients face in the legal system, session three dug deeper into the neurobiology of trauma and how trauma impacts the brain. The lawyers considered how trauma can manifest in victims, giving them flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, and loss of appetite. Participants shared examples from their own practice where they have witnessed firsthand the barrier that trauma presents for survivors of GBV seeking justice.
The final session continued the topic of the neurobiology of trauma by covering how trauma impacts memory. Limitations in memory recall can make it difficult for lawyers to build evidence in their cases. In the training, the lawyers learned interview techniques to aid memory retrieval of traumatic memories to help build their cases. Ms. Huhtanen talked participants through each step in a trauma-informed interview, providing a structure for successful interviews and the language to ask the right questions. With these tools, the lawyers can build stronger cases, better support clients and minimize, as far as possible, the harm survivors experience when participating in the criminal justice process.
An important component of trauma-informed lawyering is also to recognize the impact that vicarious trauma has on legal professionals. Participants were familiar with the signs of vicarious trauma and the group talked through coping strategies that have or might work to help manage the impact of trauma on their own lives.
One of the lawyers participating commented that what she learned in the training has changed how she approaches her work and expressed her commitment to continue learning more about trauma-informed lawyering to better advocate for her clients.
In early 2022, WAGE Jordan will continue to support the strengthening of holistic legal services for survivors of GBV with the launch of a peer learning initiative that aims at fostering open dialogue on the complex realities of supporting survivors of GBV as they seek to access justice.
[i] UN Populations Fund, 2020 Jordan GBV Information Management Systems Taskforce Annual Report, p. 6. Date Accessed, November 24, 2021. https://jordan.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/jordan_gbv_ims_task_force_-_2020_annual_report_-_v04.pdf
[ii] The Power and Control Wheel was developed in the 1980s by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program to document the most common forms of domestic abuse. For further information on the Power and Control Wheel, see here.
6 Guiding Principles for Survivor-Centered Lawyering