Courthouse Violations and PTSD: What Is “Legal Abuse Syndrome”?

Posted on April 6, 2015


This is the first post on this blog to introduce Legal Abuse Syndrome (LAS), a condition proposed by marriage and family therapist Karin P. Huffer, whose books on the subject of posttraumatic stress stemming from court-mediated violations are Overcoming the Devastation of Legal Abuse Syndrome (1995) and Legal Abuse Syndrome: 8 Steps for Avoiding the Traumatic Stress Caused by the Justice System (2013).

“Anyone who has ever worked in a legal aid office or law library has met people whose lives have come unhinged after a bad contact with the legal system. The details vary—they may have lost a business or inheritance or the custody of a child—but the common theme of feeling violated by the legal system does not. Even 20 years after losing a lawsuit, some people who suffer from Legal Abuse Syndrome still carry a suitcase of old legal papers around, desperately hoping someone will help them find justice.”

—Ralph Warner, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle (1997)

I’ve encountered the ghostly men and women described by Mr. Warner in the epigraph. They haunt law libraries the way some exiles haunt coffeehouses or used to haunt bookstores. They carry sheaves of papers, foxed file folders, and weathered satchels, just as Mr. Warner describes. They’re known to one another and exchange muted greetings and tinny words of encouragement.

They desultorily pore over computerized case law and weighty reference tomes—whether pursuing a lead or just out of habit, it’s impossible to tell—and they propound among themselves novel approaches to revisiting one or another of the dusty judgments that have plainly come to consume their lives.

The eager young law students who mill and toil never cast a glance in the direction of these damned souls, who palpably emanate doom.

Maybe I’m a fatalist, or maybe I was smart enough to recognize a fix when I saw one. A few self-navigated trips through the legal ringer were enough to cement in me a sense of futility. Otherwise, I suppose I might have found myself among this skeleton crew.

After my most recent pelting in that burlesque show advertised as process of law (2013), I resolved to stick with what I know: writing. I have no illusions that this makes me any more a master of my fate than if I clung to a corner and allayed my outrage by rocking back and forth and muttering imprecations, but the activity provides a sense of purpose, however lackluster, and bestows a semblance of order to my inner world (my outer world is a hopeless shambles from which the writing blessedly distracts).

I surface now and again to discover people I knew have aged, have entered puberty or college, have married or divorced, or have died.

Elucidating the trauma that forces a person to exchange living for some deranged form of solace like prating in a blog in defiance of a juggernaut is all this initial post on Legal Abuse Syndrome aspires to. For this, I defer to Dr. Huffer (though anyone who has tracked posts and comments here will find significant correspondences between their positions and hers):

LEGAL ABUSE SYNDROME (LAS) is a form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is a psychic injury, not a mental illness. It is a personal injury that develops in individuals assaulted by ethical violations, legal abuses, betrayals, and fraud. Abuse of power and authority and a profound lack of accountability in our courts have become rampant, compounding an already stressful experience.

This stress can and does lead to physical illness. AMA statistics show that around 85% of all physical illness is directly attributable to stress. Legal Abuse Syndrome is a public health menace in this country. It leads to massive medical intervention costs, burdens insurance companies, and adds to Medicare and Social Security costs. Most painfully, it crushes the brilliance and creativity of its sufferers. Legal Abuse Syndrome is detrimental to all of society, and nobody is immune.

Whatever the court setting, whether it is regarding divorce, child custody, parental support, probate matters, personal injury, property disputes, legal or medical malpractice, criminal charges, or other deeply personal issues, the frauds put forth in our courts add greatly to the trauma. When litigants are unable to get fair resolution to their issues, when the court dysfunction further adds to the litigant’s burden, when no amount of actual case law compels an equitable outcome, litigants suffer often disabling levels of stress. When further attempts to achieve redress fail, litigants display the hallmark signs of Legal Abuse Syndrome (LAS).

I’ll conclude with a refrain that has become trite with repetition: The thesis Dr. Huffer’s statements delineate was put forward decades ago, like so many arguments from journalists, jurists, and other social critics against a heedless and unyielding status quo that has prevailed for far too long.

Copyright © 2015

*The concept of Legal Abuse Syndrome was brought to the attention of this writer by investigative journalist Michael Volpe, who’s completing a book on the life and suicide of ones of its victims. The book’s pre-publication title is Bullied to Death: The Chris Mackney Story. (Dr. Huffer, incidentally, invites reports of cases like this one on her website’s Contact page.)