HOLDING COURT — A Sick and Twisted System
If the idea of entering a courtroom makes you nauseous, the symptoms of a new malady may prove it's not just your imagination
May 18, 1997

This may not come as much of a surprise, but going to court can make you sick.

Really. "Sick," as in headaches, exhaustion, numbness, depression — even strokes and heart attacks.

So says Karin Huffer, a marriage and family counselor in Las Vegas. She's identified a new disorder for a nation already reeling from chronic fatigue syndrome, Internet addiction disorder and other new-age afflictions.

It's called legal abuse syndrome, and it can strike crime victims, witnesses, litigants, attorneys — anyone who has dealt with the American system of laws and courts.

Which may sound like a lot of baloney, but if you've ever wrangled with the legal bureaucracy, you may know what Huffer is talking about.

She describes legal abuse syndrome as a variant of post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychologically damaging condition that can afflict people who suffer a horrific experience.

Think what can happen to survivors of car wrecks or plane crashes, for example. They have nightmares, they're often jumpy and irritable, they seem almost numb.

The reason, says Huffer, is that a traumatic event triggers overproduction of three chemicals in the brain. One keeps you alert, another makes you hyperactive and a third makes you numb.

Well, a similar reaction occurs when you get mired in the legal system. The difference: Whereas a crash happens quickly, a legal battle can drag on for years, slowly pushing your brain to release the noxious chemicals, says Huffer.

"Cumulatively, you are sustaining losses and expenses in court," she says, "having your character assassinated and your life purposely disrupted. It comes over a long period of time, but the symptoms are just as bad."

Victims of legal abuse syndrome typically jump when a phone or doorbell rings, check obsessively to see if windows and doors are locked and try to avoid anything that reminds them of the legal system.

"I've known some who can't even walk into a courthouse," says Huffer. "They'll take a detour just to avoid seeing it."

In severe cases, physical problems arise: High blood pressure, chronic fatigue and heart attacks. Among the most susceptible to the disorder are people with cases in family court, says Huffer. They fight over their houses, their children and other intensely personal matters, and are prone to crack under the emotional pressure.

'The Scream,' Edvard Munch, lithography, 1895
The Scream
Edvard Munch, lithography, 1895
“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, 1997
Co-founder and former President,
NOLO Press, http://www.nolo.com

Huffer tells of one client named Chloe who is battling for a fair divorce settlement against her powerful husband and his gaggle of attorneys. She has been fighting for 15 years — usually losing in court — but recently winning a favorable judgment. The decision is on appeal, though, and the process has all but ruined her life.

"She has become obsessed with trying to make the truth known in court," Huffer says. "She suffers terrible depression, terrible flashbacks, and she's essentially raised her children in the courts."

Bankruptcy proceedings are also a common cause of legal abuse syndrome. Huffer counts among her clients several wealthy people who have declared bankruptcy, tried to reorganize and then lost most of their property to abusers of the system.

In a forward to Huffer's recent book on the disorder, Anthony Sousa, the former federal bankruptcy trustee in San Francisco, describes the symptoms he has seen from the bench.

He writes that "competent, confident outgoing entrepreneurs are reduced to 'shell-shocked' paranoia, unable to make the most basic decisions." He says people turn into "raging extremists" after mistakenly believing bankruptcy court will allow them to "pick up the pieces with a fresh start."

But even those who have never been to court can fall ill from legal abuse, says Huffer.

Anyone who has tried to argue with a government agency, for example, can suffer the frustration and feelings of hopelessness that bring on the disorder.

"First you find that you're given papers to fill out in a little ritual called cooling off," says Huffer. "But sometimes that's all that happens — the intent is not to solve your problem but just to cool you off."

Most of the cases Huffer mentions are examples of the system gone haywire. Bad judges and bad lawyers keep honest people with good cases from getting a fair result.

But when the system works as intended, it can still cause illness by making people feel profoundly helpless, she says.

One problem is the language of the law. "A lot of the language is foreign — Latin, Old English — and it's used so that lawyers can keep you from understanding your case," Huffer contends.

Even more troubling for litigants is the discovery that truth does not guarantee victory.

"People find that the truth can be irrelevant no matter what the forum," she says. "Which makes for a legal system that corporate lawyers play well, but doesn't allow people to obtain justice."

And the cure for legal abuse syndrome?

It's complicated, but essentially involves lots of therapy to identify and address the cause of the problem — and lots of crying, according to Huffer.

The real cure, though, would require changes to a hostile legal system and greater use of mediation and other alternatives to court.

"We're at a time," says Huffer, "when we need to figure out how to create a legal system that human beings can survive without getting sick."

Copyright 1997, Hearst Communications Inc.

From: the San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 1997, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1997/05/18/SC13884.DTL, accessed 06/27/06.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.