Psychological Abuse and the Legal System

I have been watching a 60 Minutes program and learning about how women feel when cross examined in sexual abuse cases.  I have been a witness in a rape case and I saw how horrendous the Barristers were.  I’ve had one try and kiss me and found out later that he had raped his wife.  This was a separate matter but I was left with the question of their need for power and control.  In this case where I was a witness the cross examination was so intense the Barrister made me feel as if I had raped the woman and I was only a witness.  I saw it as emotional abuse and it was traumatic to go through.  It puts off people from going through court and gaining Justice.

In this program one woman who is an advocate for female victims asked a lawyer how he could sleep at night. He said on a very expensive mattress and a with a good bottle of red.  I found that statement interesting.  He is in it for the money and he sedates his emotions.  Indeed this is how emotional abuse happens, it is the suppression of emotion. I have come to develop an indepth understanding of this issue as I have experienced abuse.  I am learning that we need to feel our emotions.  They are termed ‘trapped emotions’ and if left unintegrated (suppressed) they will come up into awareness.  If suppressed they will be projected onto other people as the person cannot own their feelings or is afraid of facing the pain that has been suppressed over a lifetime. I am learning that once these emotions are felt without judgement, they will integrate (disappear). This is how healing happens.  All people are walking around with unintegrated emotions which is the catalyst of conflict and blame. When people own their issues then they are able to solve the problem not hate people.  It is very important that emotions are not suppressed or people abused in the name of Justice or indeed truth.

The woman speaking on the program said that she felt wrong when she was the one raped.  She said that the lawyers made her feel it was her fault that she dragged the poor boys through court.  She faced three men (Barristers).  I find the fact that she is facing ‘men’ of note.  She was raped by three boys when young. I wonder if the court thought about that when she was cross examined by three men.  In the rape she experienced she hadn’t had sex before or ever drunk any alcohol.  She was innocent.  She was set up by three men and they held a knife to her throat.  She said the three days in court were the most horrendous of her life.  As an older women she went back to the court and recalled the horror.  

I have undertaken research in this area and the support of perpetrators is a common complaint in respect of male perpetrators.  However, I wonder if the real issue is misogyny.  I am deeply reflecting on this issue as I believe there has been unconscious bias and beliefs around women. It appears to me that there is a conscious or unconscious instinct of some to attack a person they deem vulnerable. It gives them a sense of ‘power over’.  They like the feeling of dominance as they sharpen their wits to win the battle rather than resolve the conflict.  This in my view is a masculine conditioning that suppresses empathy. This behaviour reflects bullying.  In Victoria, bullying is illegal.  Bullying is a repeated negative behaviour that undermines the other or demeans them in some way. It can be overt – physical attack or covert – subtle power games. Either way it is disempowering.  This is the focus on my inquiry.  I am interested in learning about perceived ‘powerlessness’ as I believe it is the source of all conflict.

What is not understood is that the court case can provide the final nail in your coffin, it can destroy a person psychologically.  If the lawyers engage in this they are adding insult to the injury. What some lawyers don’t understand, or indeed care about, is that the person is already suffering emotional distress and trauma and they are becoming a party to abuse if their cross examination is a form of attack rather than questioning seeking to uncover truth. If the intent is to win at all costs then they will do what they can to discredit the person.  If  rape victim is made to feel to blame she is being shamed and this can go deep into her sense of self. If she feels powerless then the psychological attack can mirror the physical attack.  In truth all physical attack is emotional abuse.  The person relives the attack over and over psychologically as trauma is unintegrated (unhealed).  

In the bullying work I’ve done it is repeated negative behaviour with the intent of harm. Thus to affect the person to pressure them, this becomes enhanced when the objective is to win not resolve a problem.  This is a key question of the court system – is the intention to win or to find the truth? Is Justice the outcome or does it come down to the lawyer breaking down the person on the stand and reframing them in a light that says ‘it is their fault’.  Or is it about applying pressure to a dishonest person in order to have them reveal what is true.  This works on the fact most people do not want to lie and it can be clear in their eyes when they are.  It was interesting that the rape victim wanted to cross examine herself, to look him in the eye and say ‘you raped me admit it’ she said.  Perhaps she gains a sense of power when her power was taken at knife point.  It made me reflect on the victimisation of women and how they are often portrayed as victims not victors.  The latter is what empowerment looks like.

The psyche knows no difference between a physical and psychological attack because the person feels their health and safety is threatened.  I have come to understand that psychological injury is triggered by a primitive response to a psychological attack. It triggers a pain centre in the brain, the person feels physical pain.  The two are interrelated interestingly enough. Psychological injury plays on fears, powerlessness, isolation, vulnerability and the sense of no control.  This replicates how it feels in court hence triggers activate. 

So how is it that a service to uncover truth (law) is allowed to project negativity onto a person?  I think there needs to be a reform of legal discourse, where by all means ask the questions, but do not abuse the person on the stand.  In conflict resolution we call this focus on the problem not the person.  In fact go hard on the problem but not the person.  It arises from the modus operandi of ‘do no harm’.  If we want a nonviolent society then it must be modelled in all forums so people learn to resolve conflict and learn from conflict and abuse.  To go into the roots of this phenomenon is where real healing occurs.  All violence is a call for help in truth as a person loses control.  The peace work is about facing all conflict and transforming it into healthy proactive spaces where everybody wins.  This is where I feel intuitively comfortable.

My questions are:

Why are lawyers not accountable for verbal abuse?

Is there training of lawyers and Judges in the area of psychological abuse and physical abuse and the emotional needs persons on the stand? 

Do they understand what it means to cause ‘no harm’ in their pursuit of winning the case? 

Do they undertake sensitising training to abuse and suicide?

Is verbal abuse allowed in a court of law which is supposed to be about fair judgement, common decency and respect? 

I have real questions around the conduct of lawyers and their attitudes.  I also would like to know more about whether people really understand what Justice actually means and if anyone cares?  I certainly do.  It feels like fairness, the rebalancing of the scales.  I feel for the woman holding the scales as she is not only balancing reason but emotional intelligence. There is a great transformation that occurs when Justice is experienced.

This article below is discussing family abuse and in particular the emotional abuse of partners. It hasn’t gone further into emotional abuse used as a means of argument in the legal system.  What I’ve learned from the article is that the courts do not appear to have not come up to speed with emotional abuse.  I am open to learn more about this.  If this is true, then it is distressful to learn as the process may well be more detrimental than physical bruises. It can destroy you psychologically if your sense of self is shattered. 

I know I have wanted to end my life many times due to the silent treatment.  It creates a sense of powerlessness which is the core of abuse and bullying.  I will continue to explore this issue until I get real tangible answers. My desire is a peaceful, nonviolent society. My life is dedicated to this pursuit.

Emotional Abuse and Family Court Proceedings

Publication Date: 
Resource Origin: 

by Pamela Cross

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me.”
                                                                  – Playground chant


Not so, say thousands of women who have been emotionally and verbally abused by their partners and have been unable to have this acknowledged by the legal system.

Both the criminal and family court systems now take physical assault by a man against his female partner reasonably seriously. In the criminal system, protocols for handling arrests, bail hearings, evidence and sentencing have been developed, although penalties remain appallingly light. In the family system, evidence of physical abuse is considered when custody and access determinations are made.

Unfortunately, the legal system only addresses abuse when there are bruises and broken bones, even though emotional abuse can inflict longer term injuries that are more difficult to heal. Nowhere is the lack of recognition of emotional abuse more problematic than in family courts, where lifelong decisions about custody and access are made.

There are three pieces of legislation that govern custody, access and related matters in family court. The Divorce Act (federal legislation) makes no reference to violence even in those sections dealing with custody and access. The Children’s Law Reform Act (provincial legislation), the principal statute used in custody and access proceedings, likewise does not use the word “violence.” It states that custody decisions are to be made based on the “best interests of the child”.

A parent who has been proven to be physically abusive to the children is not likely to get custody of the children. Increasingly, physical violence by an abusive partner against the other may be considered, but this is not yet the case with emotional abuse. The only legislation that makes overt reference to violence is the provincial Family Law Act, which lists violence as one of the considerations in determining which spouse should remain in the matrimonial home.

Presenting a case in family court that relies strictly or primarily on emotional abuse is a difficult task — in part because of the lack of definition in the legislation, but also because of the attitudes of most players in the legal arena. The environment of the courtroom also does not provide an atmosphere that is conducive to understanding what any form of abuse does to a woman. [The cumulative effects of repeated and ongoing emotional abuse tactics may be reduced to a series of individual acts that, on their own, are not seen as abuse].

For example, an abusive partner isolates a woman from her friends and family, keeps track of her every move, calls her every hour, goes through her purse, listens to her phone calls, makes all the decisions, and convinces the children that she is not to be respected or listened to.

If we want family court to take emotional abuse seriously, we will have to approach it the same way we did with physical abuse 20 years ago, beginning with education for all players in the legal system. In addition, we must examine the increasing reliance by the family courts on mediation-related initiatives and ensure that those professionals, too, are educated and sensitized to emotional abuse, particularly in screening adequately for mediation.

We also need to lobby for legislative reform — there being no more important time than now, with the federal Minister of Justice publicly committed to provincial consultations to respond to the recent House of Commons/Senate report on custody and access entitled “For the Sake of the Children.”

When well-educated lawyers, supported by appropriate legislation, are able to present thoroughly documented cases to judges who understand what emotional abuse is, and that it is every bit as serious as physical abuse, decisions about custody and access will begin to reflect what is in the best interests of both women and children.

This project has received support from the Ontario Women’s Directorate and does not necessarily reflect the view of the Government of Ontario.



Mohandas Gandhi

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”