Research paper on trauma-informed approach to evidence law wins award

Statue of justice

A paper co-authored by York University psychology professor Robert T. Muller from the Faculty of Health has been recognized with the Pierre Janet Award by The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) for its exploration of systematic biases against victims of trauma in the Canadian court system.

Robert T. Muller
Robert T. Muller

Trauma is complicated. It can fundamentally rewire key structures of the brain in ways that can produce emotional reactions and behaviours that aren’t always conducive to “common-sense” understanding.

As science has come to better understand this, society and institutions have been adopting more complicated understandings of trauma victims. However, the paper “Toward a Trauma-Informed Approach to Evidence Law:  Witness Credibility and Reliability” – a joint effort between Muller and professors at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Toronto (U of T) which was published in the Canadian Bar Review – argues that the country’s court system hasn’t.

“When we examine the ways in which the Canadian legal system looks at the question of witness credibility, there are numerous systematic biases against victims of trauma,” says Muller.

The research team, including legal scholars Thor Paulson and Benjamin Perrin from UBC and psychiatrist Robert G. Maunder from U of T, reviewed case law and model jury instructions, documenting trauma victims’ appearances as witnesses, and focusing on the method by which their testimony is evaluated. “We examined the effects of trauma on fragmentation of memory, and how the unique characteristics of traumatized individuals’ memory processes impact the ways in which they may come across as a witness,” says Muller.

In the process, the team found that because Canadian courts are not trauma-informed in how they assess the credibility and reliability of witness testimony, the system suffers from biases that contradict the scientifically proven effects of trauma.

This can have a significant impact on trauma victims wanting to step forward, the paper notes. “Few survivors of interpersonal trauma, particularly individuals in marginalized communities, bring cases forward, in part, due to the understanding that doing so is unlikely to bring about justice.  And their skepticism is warranted,” says Muller.

In addition to laying out the legal system’s lacking understanding of trauma, the paper argues for fundamental changes to the ways in which evidence is evaluated in the justice system and not just in the Canadian justice system, as the fundamental arguments are transferable to U.S. and other jurisdictions.    

“Understanding the impact of trauma on memory and the narration of past events is something we hope can be emphasized in the education of judges and other relevant decision makers,” says Muller.

The paper’s potential impact was already boosted by being published in the Canadian Bar Review, which is the official legal journal of the Canadian Bar Association and is often cited by the Supreme Court of Canada.  

Now the study’s reach promises to go further with its most recent award. The ISSTD, the leading international scientific organization studying the impact of trauma and its treatment, honoured the team with the Pierre Janet Award, which recognizes what the organization considers to be the best clinical, theoretical or research paper in the field within the past year. 

Muller hopes the paper’s mission, and reception, will help advance a better – and system-changing – understanding of trauma in a still underrepresented field. “There is very little overlap between the scientific study of trauma, legal studies, and legal practice.  Our hope is that this research can bring greater communication between these fields, and apply what we’ve learned over the years,” he says.