Therapeutic Jurisprudence as an anti-bias tool in courtrooms

In this blog, Professor Vicki Lens of the Silberman School of Social Work, The City University of New York, explores dependency courts and the intersection of race, gender and class and how TJ principles can be used to reduce bias in court rooms.  While Professor Lens’ work centres around dependency courts in the family law/child neglect/protection area, the ideas discussed have applicability in other specialist and mainstream court settings…

Dependency courts are social, as well as legal, spaces. They are places of status and hierarchy, where professionals reign over lay people, and where there are two camps: those there willingly (the professionals) and those who are not (the respondents or participants).  For the former, the courtroom is their work space, a familiar place with familiar faces. But for the latter, courtrooms are foreign territory, and often enemy territory, where friendly faces are few and far between and where judgment awaits.

Especially in dependency courts in the United States, the divide between the willing and the unwilling is often one of race and class. Black children are overrepresented in the child welfare system, and poor people are more likely than the affluent to be accused of child maltreatment. While Family Court judges are often women, they are also often White, as are many of the lawyers present in the court room. The courtroom is also divided by class, with mostly middle-class legal professionals standing in judgment of predominantly poor respondents.

As I observed in my ethnographic study of a dependency court, this demographic divide is readily apparent, and unsettling. Although at the center of the proceeding, the respondent parent, usually a woman and disproportionately of color, is virtually invisible. She often sits huddled and silent in her chair as the attorneys’ bustle around her, speaking for and about her.  Customary and routine rituals only reinforce this separateness. The swearing-in ritual distinguishes the parent from the other mostly White court actors, whose words appear to flow freely, without being subject to the test of truth. The protective gesture of an attorney silencing her when she speaks up unbidden also takes on a different hue when it is mostly white professionals silencing mostly poor women of color. A parent’s inclusion in the proceedings often only comes at the end, and then as a passive vessel of a judge’s orders, after others had discussed her transgressions and determined a solution.

The high volume and fast pace of cases also invites invisibility, as one case quickly blurs into another. A courtroom custom of referring to the parent as “the mother” when spoken about, and the generic “Ma’am” when spoken to, further erases respondents’ individuality and identity. As is common in such settings, judges will often rely on a type of “perceptual shorthand” or “scripts” to make decisions, based on a mix of the law and past experiences with similar cases, but which also may give short shrift to individual attributes and more room for institutional and systemic biases, including race, gender and class-based stereotypes.

Image 27-4-19 at 11.35 amTherapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) with its focus on creating an inclusive, participatory and respectful legal environment, can transform such courtrooms. Its emphasis on the individual and how legal rules and procedures may affect respondents’ well-being is tailormade for countering group stereotypes.

Current approaches to addressing bias, including anti-racist training and reflection tools, already employ some of the principles of TJ. As one example, several courts have implemented the use of “Benchcards” for judges to monitor their own biases within the context of “best practices” in judicial decision-making.  The Benchcards include a series of “reflection questions” that are designed to encourage judges to view respondents as individuals, while also being aware of how group-based stereotypes may influence their decisions. Examples of reflection questions include:

  • What assumptions have I made about the cultural identity, genders, and background of this family?
  • What is my understanding of this family’s unique culture and circumstances?
  • How is my decision specific to this child and this family?

Augmenting such approaches with a more systematic application of TJ principles acts as a further protective barrier against bias by encouraging judicial behaviors that ensure all parents are treated well and fairly. It also invites judges to consider the effect of judicial actions and behaviors on respondents, a key tenets of TJ.

As the table (below) illustrates the four dimensions of TJ – respect, neutrality and trust, voice and support – are also easily translated into concrete actions and behaviors that judges can incorporate into their repertoire

Respect Neutrality and Trust
Introduce themselves at the beginning of the proceeding

Personally welcome the respondents/participants

Make eye contact when speaking and listening

Use body language (nodding, tilting forward, eye contact) that convey a willingness to listen

Refer to the participant by surname (for example, Ms. Brown rather than the “mother”)

Use plain language that avoids legal jargon or acronyms

When setting the next court date, ask the participant what date/times would be convenient for them


Clearly explain the purpose of the proceeding and the court process

Be prepared for the proceeding

Listen carefully and patiently

Treat all of the participants the same

Clearly explain the reasons for any decisions

Help participants to understand decisions and what they must do as a result

Voice Support
Give participants the opportunity to speak and voice their perspectives (i.e. allow them to complete their thoughts and their answers to questions)

Speak directly to the participant in a manner that encourages dialogue

Ask open-ended questions that invite more than a simple “yes” or “no” response

Ask participants if they have any questions


Make supportive comments, such as praising, complimenting or reassuring the participant

Convey a sense of caring, compassion or empathy

Demonstrate interest in the needs, problems and concerns of participant

Acknowledge participants emotional responses to the case or court events (i.e. crying)


(1) For the full article from which this blog and table are drawn see Lens V. (2019). Judging the “other”: The intersection of race, gender and class in Family Court. Family Court Review 57 (1), 72-8.


Posted in child protection, Court Craft Series for Judicial Officers, family law, judiciary, mainstreaming TJ, TJ in action | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa or Oceania region? Want to improve the justice system?

Interested in a justice system that improves the well-being of all those impacted it?

Come along to the first Therapeutic Jurisprudence Oceania symposium in Brisbane, Australia on April 13 & 14, 2019

It will be an intimate and relaxed gathering of people across the region to exchange current TJ developments and plan for the future of TJ in Oceania.\

For all the details link here to the ISTJ Oceania Chapter Symposium Flyer

If you can attend email Katey Thom ….

And spread the word through your networks!

Warm regards

Katey Thom & Nigel Stobbs,

ISTJ Oceania Co-Convenors

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“Wrongful Birth” Claims and the Paradox of Parenting a Child with a Disability – applying a therapeutic jurisprudence lens

Guest blogger Sofia Yakren, Associate Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law writes…

“Wrongful birth,” a controversial medical malpractice claim, likely has a significant anti-therapeutic impact on the individuals it is designed to compensate.  

The claim is typically raised by the mother of a child born with a disability against a medical professional whose failure to provide adequate prenatal information denied her the chance to abort.  To secure damages, a plaintiff-mother is required by law to present evidence—including through her own testimony—that she would have terminated her pregnancy but for the defendant-medical provider’s negligence.  

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Caring for Families in Court – new book out now


TJ founder Professor David Wexler writes…

Routledge Press has just published a crucially important book that should be of real and immediate interest to the Therapeutic Jurisprudence community.

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Posted in books about TJ, child protection, domestic/family violence, family law, youth/juvenile justice | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Problem solving courts: Some lessons from New Zealand

This blog by Rob Hulls was recently published by Centre for Innovative Justice.   Thanks to Rob and the CIJ for permission to republish for the worldwide TJ community…

On 24 and 25 January I attended the Future Directions of the Adult Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts Conference at the University of Auckland.

After six successful years running as a pilot in two locations, the AODTC is at a crucial crossroad – in the coming months the New Zealand government will decide whether to make the court a permanent part of the country’s legal DNA, and also whether to expand the program.

The conference was a chance for the court and its stakeholders – as well as experts in therapeutic jurisprudence from around the world – to reflect on the past six years and on how the court might operate going forward.

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The Power of Compassion in the Court: Healing on both sides of the bench (TJ Court Craft Series #15)

Judge Jamey Hueston (retired), Co-Convenor of the Judicial Outreach Group of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence writes…

It is an occupational reality that judges are frequently exposed to disturbing cases involving human misery and anguishing circumstances that can wear on their psyche.

Traditional Legal culture expects judges to remain stoically neutral and unemotional while rendering fair decisions. However, it is unreasonable to expect judges to be indifferent to distressing matters or be unaffected by the suffering they hear.

Exposure to dramatic accounts of cruelty and harm has a detrimental impact on physical and emotional health.  

Large caseloads and the inherent isolation of life on the bench can also contribute stress. Judges are at risk for developing secondary trauma.

Despite the frequently trying nature of judicial service, judges are in the enviable position to positively affect the life conditions of the citizenry before them. 

Judicial compassion is the tool to accomplish that desired result.  It offers the means to confront difficult emotions of others and understand their suffering with the desire to relieve it.  

Compassion can be a healing instrument enabling judges to resolve conflicts before the court effectively while experiencing positive emotions.

Training in the use of therapeutic and compassionate approaches will enable judges to craft healthier outcomes for those appearing before the court while cogently relieving judicial trauma. Continue reading

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Growing the Therapeutic Jurisprudence community: How to share your work

“Therapeutic jurisprudence” is a mouthful, yes? But let’s think about it: How much better would our laws and legal systems be if they were designed mainly to encourage psychologically healthy outcomes? If you understand the significance of this question, then you now comprehend the essence of therapeutic jurisprudence and why it’s so important.  David Yamada

Are you interested in redesigning the law and legal systems?

Let’s grow the international Therapeutic Jurisprudence community in 2019!

If you haven’t already, make sure you have joined the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence and get involved in the Society’s wonderful Chapters and Interest Groups. And spread the word about the Society through your networks.

And let’s keep sharing our ideas and work.

In this blog Karla Gonzalez gives us a run down on all the ways we can share our TJ work

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Posted in Introduction to TJ, researching TJ, TJ articles, TJ in action | Tagged , , | 1 Comment