North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems

Prof. David Wexler, during a workshop break, at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School

TJ co-founder David Wexler, during a workshop break, at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School

I spent Friday and Saturday participating in a workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. For two days I joined in stimulating, intense discussions with a small group of professors, lawyers, mental health experts, and graduate students to discuss how we can create laws and legal systems that are more invested in psychological health and well-being.

Therapeutic jurisprudence, or “TJ,” is a school of legal philosophy and practice that “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being,” in the words of law professor and co-founder David Wexler (pictured above). For some 30 years, TJ adherents have been creating a global network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. My own attraction to TJ arose out of my work on workplace bullying and my broader commitment to creating systems of employment law that embrace human dignity.

The Toronto workshop was a sequel to workshops held in 2015 and 2014 at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and in 2012 at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law in San Juan. Our purpose has been to create small gatherings of TJ-affiliated scholars, practitioners, and students to share work in progress and to solicit feedback, as well as to build the TJ community. I have elaborated on the value of small-group workshops and symposia that promote genuine interaction and the forging of ongoing connections in a short essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be downloaded without charge from my Social Science Research Network page.

In essence, we are planting seeds for important changes in the legal profession and in our legal systems. These aspirations will become more ambitious during the year to come, when we launch an international, non-profit membership society that will build the therapeutic jurisprudence community and expand TJ’s scope and influence.

Here were the workshop topics:

  • “Dealing with Sexual Violence on Campus” (Carol Zeiner);
  • “What Can Design Thinking Offer TJ (and vice versa)? (Nicole Aylwin);
  • “Emotional Intelligence for Judges” (Michael Jones);
  • “Loneliness in Old Age and Ethical Considerations” (Heather Campbell);
  • “Methodologies for the study of procedural justice within the operation of TJ related courts” (Voula Marinos);
  • “Feedback-Informed Judging” (Dale Dewhurst and Ann Marie Dewhurst);
  • “Practical Demands for Access to Justice” (Dale Dewhurst);
  • “Friends of Justice” (Ann Marie Dewhurst);
  • “Evolving scientific evidence and its potential effects on individuals (as distinct from case outcomes)” (Alison Lynch);
  • “TJ, forensic mental health, and the Ontario Review Board” (Jamie Cameron and Sandy Simpson);
  • “Considering the Profound Differences between Mental Health Courts and ‘Traditional’ Involuntary Civil Commitment Courts (Michael Perlin); and,
  • “Accessible Legal Writing and TJ” (Shelley Kierstead).

I spoke on “Psychological Trauma, Neuroscience, and Narrative: Bullied Workers and the Challenge of Storytelling,” building on this blog post from September.

Special thanks go to Osgoode Hall professor Shelley Kierstead — a veteran of TJ-related events — for organizing and facilitating this workshop, and to Osgoode Hall dean Lorne Sossin for his warm welcome to the Law School.

I’m pleased to report that in addition to very full days of discussion and dialogue, we managed to get in some terrific meals and a night of karaoke. I opted for some favorites from the Gershwins, Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. Singing is good for the soul, especially after many hours spent talking about reforming our laws and legal systems!

Outside the restaurant, awaiting a final group dinner. L to R, DY with Profs. Shelley Kierstead, Michael Perlin, and David Wexler

Awaiting a final group dinner, with Profs. Shelley Kierstead, Michael Perlin, and David Wexler

3 responses

  1. David, thank you so much for sharing about the TJ conference and workshop topics. Your topic, “Psychological Trauma, Neuroscience, and Narrative: Bullied Workers and the Challenge of Storytelling,” hits the nail right on the head for me. I wish I could just attend and gather it all in. I am energized to imagine that someday I too could be able to make a legal or psychological contribution to the furtherance of TJ and the importance of telling and hearing stories.

    Reminds me of an attorney activist and advocate for the homeless who stresses the importance of listening to the “explicatory narratives” of how people became homeless.

    In this country…in THIS country, the common poor of the unprotected classes rarely get a chance to tell their stories of being bullied and mobbed in their jobs and careers, in a legal context.

    What not being able to have one’s story heard represents, is not just the poverty and lack of money necessary to force one’s narrative into legal adjudication, but also the lack of all kinds of other social resources and a great load of social and personal disempowerments.

    The inaccessibility of our seemingly anti-therapeutic, hidebound, cold, calculating and closed legal system represents a social and psychological disempowerment which manifests in a personal sense of marginaliztion in society; a sense of despair and defeat before even one word of a story is told.

    When people feel deprived relative to those around them, stress rises, health suffers, and envy and class differences conspire to drown the individual in disempowered “other-ness”.

  2. I echo Charles’ sentiments. While I saw several topics addressing judges, employment lawyers would benefit from this as well. As workplace bullying continues to grow more employment lawyers will be dealing with clients who have experienced psychological violence. I have perceived that a lawyer’s discomfort arrises, and rightly so, because they have little to no experience with PTSD, lack first hand empathy, and feel their hands are tied because even if they want to help, the laws and precedent cases are stacked against them. For the victim who clearly perceives what the lawyer is going through, similar to secondary injury- no victim wants another to suffer on their behalf. We have already experienced the impotence and crazy-making when the bully turns a victim’s friend into a human shield. What I find missing in the TJ dialogue is the voice of those who have experienced the legislative process and its players. Victims who are managing with psychological injuries and social anxiety with limited to no economic resources. The playing field of one who is backed by a good willed 2/3rd year law student, if you can find them, is not in any means “level” as they are facing a legal team with huge economic backing, years of experience and connections. It is a shocking gift that Workmen’s Compensation lawyers do not charge fees to the client rather the bully organization. It would be amazing if victim’s lawyers were subsidized by the state until settlement and the opposing side would have to pay the victims legal team’s costs plus interest. This might encourage lawyers to also take cases on a contingency basis. David, your topic is near and dear to my heart as it was my struggle and one I supported others with. I know that this is a problem when looking for a lawyer. The victim knows they have a case but if the lawyer does not agree, after your 15 minute summary, you walk away saying, “I must not have told the important parts of the story” because they come out in order of the most horrific. We know all the pieces are there, but it is very difficult for us to distinguish between different shades of awful.

  3. It has taken me 3 years of research, discussion, listening to others stories, etc. to understand this subject, to learn the vocabulary and the social-psychological framework. My summary of events that was once sketched out in pages, is a sentence. “I was a victim of institutional bullying in the form of 6 years of primary and secondary psychological injury and retaliation. “

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