Importance of having a trauma-informed legal practice

Dr Cathy Kezelman, AM, President of Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, discusses the importance of having a trauma-informed legal practice in the first of a two-part article series for Legalwise News. Research shows that many people with trauma histories have been re-traumatised within the very services they access for assistance, she writes.

Cathy will present on the topic, Trauma and Vicarious Trauma for Personal Injury Practitioners, at the 12th Annual Personal Injury Conference on 8 March. 

Dr Cathy Kezelman

A significant number of Australians have experienced trauma, past and present. Many access legal and justice services. `As a powerful institution in society, law regularly encounters and deals with people, both as victims and offenders, whose lives have been shaped and harmed by traumatic events’ (Randall and Haskell, 2013[1]).

Trauma-informed legal practice

A large growing evidence base establishes the case for broad-based implementation of trauma-informed practice. `(M)ore effective, fair, intelligent, and just legal responses must work from a perspective which is trauma informed’ (Randall & Haskell, 2013[2]). Research shows that many people with trauma histories have been re-traumatised within the very services they access for assistance (Jennings 2004[3]), when these services are not informed about trauma and its dynamics. As people affected by trauma are at high risk of re-traumatisation, their well-being depends on trauma-informed organisational and individual practice.

Trauma-informed legal practice doesn’t only benefit clients but also practitioners, colleagues and the firms/services and systems in which they work. Blue Knot Foundation offers various training opportunities in this area for the legal and justice sector.

Areas of practice

Trauma-informed practice applies to all areas of legal practice but most obviously to areas such as criminal law, personal injury law, child protection law, family law and immigration and refugee law. Trauma-informed practice is also highly pertinent to the judiciary and court personnel as well as all who appear before the courts.

[M]ost if not all, situations of conflict and harm involve questions of justice and injustice, and situations of injustice frequently involve trauma’ (Zehr 2009[4]). Abuse and adversity, particularly in childhood, often have pervasive impacts on self-esteem, sense of self-worth, mental and physical health and the capacity to form and maintain healthy relationships.

Understanding trauma and the stress response

Trauma stems from the overwhelming of coping mechanisms in response to the perception or experience of extreme threat. `Normal life stress’ activates innate `fight’, `flight’ and/or `freeze’ responses which dissipate once the stress subsides. The repeated perception of extreme threat with trauma often leaves these responses chronically activated. While protective at the time of the precipitating event/s they can corrode health over time. `Normal life stress’ can trap people who have experiences of trauma in a cycle of physical and psychological reactivity.

Trauma is not only recognized as an event or series of events in a person’s life, but as a life-altering experience that can form the “core” of an individual’s identity (Harris & Fallot, 2001[5]). Developing insight into the emotional and behavioural expressions of traumatic stress and building the resources, tools and strategies to minimise the risks of re-traumatisation for clients and vicarious traumatisation for themselves are critical for all legal and justice personnel.

Understanding trauma responses and coping strategies

When we understand a little of the neuroscience we can better interpret some of the responses with which people present (e.g. when a client becomes highly distressed over something that appears apparently minor i.e. has potentially possibly been triggered). These physiological reactions are triggered unconsciously and largely by sensory stimuli and reminders of the original trauma. People with trauma histories often move between different states of arousal – they can oscillate between being hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused at any one time. Many also struggle to manage their often strong emotions.

People with trauma histories can also struggle to feel safe, and to trust as they were not safe at the time of their trauma and were often badly betrayed. To ‘survive’ their trauma and traumatic reactions people develop coping strategies or adaptive responses. Early adaptive responses are ‘stored’ in neural networks and their trauma being activated can generate default responses e.g. being hyper-vigilant. A trauma-informed lens recognises hyper-vigilance as a biological response to trauma.

While some coping strategies e.g. self-harm and avoidance can be and seem detrimental, jeopardising the promotion of self- interest, they can be ‘adaptive’ by providing relief in the moment. This ‘makes sense’ in the context of prior traumatic experience; with trauma, the need to protect against potentially overwhelming experience will always trump cognitive assessment of the maximisation of interests. This can challenge the `rational actor’ assumptions of legal discourse if it is not well understood.

Dr Cathy Kezelman. AM. is a medical practitioner, President of the Blue Knot Foundation – National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma; prior member of Independent Advisory Council on Redress; member of the Mental Health Community Advisory Council (NSW), member of NSW Standing Committee of Child Safety. Cathy worked in medical practice for 20 years, mostly as a GP.  Under her stewardship over 15 years, Blue Knot Foundation has grown from a peer support organisation to a leading national organisation combining a prominent consumer voice with that of researchers, academics and clinicians advocating for socio-political change  and informed responsiveness to complex trauma. She is a prominent voice in the media and at conferences, as well as author of a memoir chronicling her journey of recovery from child sexual abuse: Innocence Revisited- a tale in parts. She is co-author of multiple publications including the seminal Blue Knot Foundation document – Practice Guidelines for Treatment of Complex trauma and Trauma Informed Care and Service Delivery and Trauma and the Law – Applying Trauma-informed Practice to Legal and Judicial Contexts. On Australia Day 2015 Cathy was awarded an AM “for significant service to community health as a supporter and advocate for survivors of child abuse”. Contact Cathy at or connect via  LinkedIn.

You can also connect with the Blue Knot Foundation via FacebookTwitter and  LinkedIn. Visit the Blue Knot Foundation for more information on Managing Vicarious Trauma training for the Legal and Justice Sector, and Trauma-Informed Care and Practice Training for the Legal and Justice Sector.


[1] Randall, M. & Haskell, L. (2013) `Trauma-Informed Approaches to Law: Why Restorative Justice Must Understand Trauma and Psychological Coping’, The Dalhousie Law Journal (Fall), pp..523-533.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jennings, A. (2004) `Models for Developing Trauma-Informed Behavioral Health Systems and Trauma-Specific Services’. Report produced by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) and the National Technical Assistance Center for State Mental Health Planning (NTAC) United States
[4] Zehr, H. (2009) `The Intersection of Restorative Justice with Trauma Healing, Conflict, Transformation and Peacebuilding’, Peace and Justice Studies (23, 18, 1.5).
[5] Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (Eds.). (2001). New directions for mental health services. Using trauma theory to design service systems. San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.