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Together at Last: Procedural Fairness and Trauma-Informed Practice Work Together to Reduce Harm

Written by: Courage to Act’s Reporting, Investigations, and Adjudication Working Group

We are excited to provide an introduction to the Reporting, Investigations, and Adjudication (RIA) Working Group toolkit, A Comprehensive Guide to Campus Gender-Based Violence Complaints: Strategies for Procedurally Fair, Trauma-Informed Processes to Reduce Harm, which will be launched on the Courage to Act Knowledge Centre in fall 2021. Read on for a sneak peek of this groundbreaking toolkit that illustrates how trauma-informed practice and procedural fairness can work together, rather than being at odds.

After years of tension and anticipation, the long-awaited partnership between procedural fairness and trauma-informed practice is finally here. Not only are they compatible, but they may just be soulmates, joining forces to reduce harm in campus gender-based violence (GBV) complaints processes!

Those working within campus GBV processes have long been torn between the requirement for procedural fairness for the respondent and the need for trauma-informed practice with complainants. This presumed tension has permeated every aspect of campus GBV responses, whether the complaints relate to students, staff or faculty. It has shaped how policies are written,  investigations are conducted, and decisions are made. It has resulted in frustration and harm to complainants, respondents, their advisors and supporters, and everyone working in the process.

Here’s the thing: the notion that procedural fairness is restricted to respondents and trauma-informed practice belongs only to GBV survivors is a pivotal mistake. Procedural fairness applies to complainants too, and trauma-informed practice can be just as important for respondents. Applying these and other harm reduction strategies across the board improves the experience for everyone.

Affording rights to one party does not diminish the rights of the other, and treating both parties in an intersectional and trauma-informed manner strengthens both their human rights and their procedural fairness rights. It creates the conditions for authentic engagement in the complaints process, whether that be recalling and articulating what happened, or being able to fully understand and respond to allegations. In fact, these two standards work symbiotically to reduce harm for the involved parties and reduce risk to the institution.

It may seem complicated, and it is – especially when you factor in the legislative and regulatory environment unique to PSIs. By law, PSIs must uphold human rights; provide an equitable, safe and harassment-free working and learning environment; protect privacy; and apply labour standards. They also feature a network of policies and collective agreements that may specify or prohibit certain procedures. PSIs can function simultaneously as an institution of higher learning, a workplace, a residential community, a site of job training, and a research and innovation hub. They are diverse communities consisting of various cultures, shapes, ages, abilities, and genders. Navigating this terrain is complex and sometimes even contradictory. It is within this unique regulatory framework that this toolkit is situated and provides detailed strategies on how to infuse procedural fairness, trauma-informed practices, and harm reduction measures through each step of a complaints process.

We lay it all out in the Comprehensive Guide, beginning with an overview of the fundamental principles of procedural fairness, trauma-informed practice, and harm reduction. For those PSIs looking to design or revise their GBV response, we propose strategies in section 2 of the Guide for creating a comprehensive policy framework; building trauma-informed and procedurally fair policies that recognize and work to reduce harm; and making informed decisions about personnel, roles, and training.

However, even the best, most comprehensive policy and procedures can be undermined if the individuals implementing them have not incorporated procedural fairness, trauma-informed care, and harm reduction into their practice. In section 3 of the Guide, we turn to this aspect of the GBV response, and trace a complaints process from beginning to end, suggesting strategies for those carrying out crucial functions in each step, including intake workers, investigators, and adjudicators (both initial and on appeal).

Finally, in recognition that no complaints process will serve everyone no matter how well it is designed and executed, the Guide proposes an equally legitimate series of non-adjudicative options. These may better address the needs created by GBV than a complaints process. For example, survivors have identified such desired outcomes as an apology, a voice in the process, validation, recognition of the harm caused, reassurance that they are safe, and measures to hold the person who subjected them to GBV accountable beyond simple punishment. A complaints process may address GBV in that it provides the possibility of sanctions for past behaviour, but rarely does it come close to addressing complainants’ needs.

While we would love to say we have solved all of the problems inherent in campus GBV complaints, there is much to be done. A number of thorny questions remain unresolved – issues that vex complaints processes at every PSI, but for which there is little in the way of judicial guidance or best practices. For section 4 of the Guide, we gathered a panel of experts from across the country to work through three of these unsettled questions:

  • How do we find the balance between privacy and disclosure in a procedurally fair, trauma-informed way that reduces harm and respects human rights?

  • How do we handle cases in which there are or may be concurrent criminal charges?

  • What is our obligation when receiving historical complaints?

For each question, the panel of experts identifies the problems, debates potential solutions, and makes a number of recommendations to address the issue. Additionally, we called for more research, discussion, or leadership related to a number of outstanding wicked questions outside of our scope.

The Guide is written specifically for administrators, lawyers, and policy-makers who make decisions about complaints processes, such as designing and resourcing them, and those who have practical roles within the processes themselves. But we hope it will also function as a resource for complainants, respondents, their advisors and supporters, frontline GBV workers, and student advocates. We hope it helps both to explain complaints processes and to strengthen or improve them. Finally, we hope users will understand the Guide as a challenge to become the new experts, to educate themselves and their institutions, and to continue the work we started.


The Reporting, Investigation and Adjudication (RIA) Working Group focuses on formal campus gender-based violence complaints processes, with an aim to infuse trauma-informed practice into procedurally fair processes and reduce the harm to complainants, respondents, witnesses, and all staff and faculty involved in the process, from disclosure through to appeal. The RIA Working Group is one of three Working Groups with the Courage to Act project. Each Working Group is composed of experts in their respective fields from across Canada. The RIA Working Group’s membership includes Deborah Eerkes and Britney De Costa, with contributions from Zanab Jafry.

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Suggested Citation: Reporting, Investigations, and Adjudication Working Group. (2021, September). Together at Last: Procedural Fairness and Trauma-Informed Practice Work Together to Reduce Harm. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/riatoolkit

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