In a series of panels, Practising Law Institute experts discussed the various considerations and potential complications that can arise when bringing domestic violence cases before the court systems. The webinar, entitled “Addressing Domestic Violence Across Practice Areas 2016,” provided crucial information and advice in relation to handling trauma experienced by the victims, utilizing expert witnesses, and presenting different forms of evidence before the court. This and other webinars featuring experts in the legal field can be accessed at www.pli.edu.
The first of the three panels addressed the relationship between advocate and client, including best practices for building trust and managing interviews with a potentially traumatized victim. Advocates that are beginning to take domestic violence cases and seasoned domestic violence alike can benefit from an in depth look at strategies and complications that surround representing a victim of trauma.
The panel was moderated by Charlotte Watson, Executive Director, New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts, New York State Unified Court System, and also included: Dr. Ruth Forero, Clinical Consultant, Supervisor and Psychotherapist; Jennifer C. Friedman, Managing Director, Center for Legal Services, My Sisters’ Place; Angela Yeboah, Deputy Director, Bronx Legal Project, Bronx Family Justice Center, Sanctuary for Families.
While advocates are often aware that there is a relationship that needs to be built between client and attorney in order to ensure the best services to the client, this is even more important when taking clients who have suffered domestic or intimate partner violence. Trauma can play a huge role in the life of a victim and reliving these moments can be triggering. As an attorney, it is crucial to understand how trauma works, and how best to work with your client to get what you need to represent them while building a sense of trust and partnership. Trauma presents differently in different people and understanding what questions or subject matter may provide a trigger for your client is integral to providing the best service possible.
Being up front, honest, and patient with your client is absolutely essential to building trust. The brain often responds to trauma by shutting down. This can present in a myriad of ways from extreme emotional outbursts to a total shut down of emotions. Dr. Forero suggests changing the subject, or asking questions that seem mundane if your client begins to present signs of triggering during interviews. For example, Dr. Forero discussed an incident where a client was triggered by the conversation and was exhibiting signs of trauma. She asked the client to take a deep breath and recite her social security number (it can be any number really, but something familiar). This seemingly irrelevant question helped the client to come back to the current surroundings and regain control over her immediate situation. While this is useful for helping the client regain control during an interview, it may be better to find more relevant questions should the client experience triggering while on the stand.
The interview process with a client is the cornerstone for all of the legal preparations involved in the case and it is very important for traumatized clients to feel safe and comfortable during this stage. The trust and relationship involved between attorney and client can take time and patience to create, and this is only that much more true for survivors of trauma. It can help to make sure that attorneys seem non-judgmental and to ask questions in a non-confrontational manner. For instance, explaining the reason behind asking certain intimate questions can help put the client at ease, and detailing the possible outcomes of the case can assist in keeping the expectations of clients grounded.
In building this relationship during the interview process, it can be useful to try phrasing questions in such a way as to show the client that you are on their side. For example, you may need to ask your client details they may not wish to provide, or are uncomfortable speaking on. By explaining to your client that these are questions the judge or prosecutor needs you to ask, it can deflect any animosity the client may feel being asked these questions off of you personally and simultaneously prepare them for the types of questions they may be asked to answer in court.
Other ways to build trust include ensuring safety measures, explicitly detailing the differences between confidentiality and attorney-client privilege, helping them to find support structures within the system, and supporting their choices even when you don’t agree with them. These victims should be seen as whole individuals and not just within the context of the legal case. Remember that the “perfect victim” doesn’t exist and attorneys should utilize whatever strategies are necessary to prepare their clients for what is coming next, always bearing in mind what your client is capable of handling.
To learn more about representing domestic violence victims, listen to additional panels from the presentation, or find the other resources offered by the Practising Law Institute, visit their website www.pli.edu.
- Trauma Informed Lawyering
Jennifer C. Friedman, Charlotte A. Watson, Angela Yeboah, Dr. Ruth Forero
- The Expert Witness
Deborah A. Kaplan, Dorchen A. Leidholdt, Kim Susser, Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda, Carmen M. Rey
Mary Rothwell Davis, Michelle Kaminsky, Betsy C. Tsai, Hon. Elyse Lazansky
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