Legal aid lawyers “risk their mental health” with traumatic cases

Delahunty: juniors exposed to trauma need support

Legal aid lawyers in serious cases deal with trauma that is bound to have an impact on them, and they also have to start showing compassion to junior staff who suffer from burnout, a senior family barrister has said.

Speaking at Gresham College in London, in a lecture entitled Is a family lawyer’s work all stress and distress?, Professor Jo Delahunty QC said legal aid lawyers working on cases involving child death, sexual abuse, and similarly horrific events, risked their own mental health.

The silk, who practises from 4PB and is a recorder, said she felt obliged to speak out because it was vital to stem the “brain drain” that saw experienced barristers leaving the profession, largely due to stress of over-work and under-payment.

The problem was such that if barristers continued to “bend over backwards” to prop up the system, to ensure that it “rumbles on”, nothing would change.

Ms Delahunty said she had worked on numerous cases involving sexual trauma and death, including the Hillsborough case, in which she was forced to view images of people dying before her eyes and about which she had not spoken before and would not do so again.

Senior barristers, in particular, owed a duty of care to junior members of the profession that accompanied them on traumatic cases, and to clients.

“Working with traumatised people, we cannot become immune from the stress they have suffered because one of the attributes of us doing our jobs is empathy.

“Without empathy you don’t ask the right questions.”

The consequences of doing work which dealt with the “brutality of humanity” were inevitably that lawyers sustained “collateral damage”.

She continued: “We get secondary trauma, we get post-traumatic stress syndrome, we get burn-out.”

Common symptoms were “sleep difficulties, headaches, gut problems, impaired immune systems, self-harm, and isolation from families and colleagues – because, if we tell them what we are feeling, we fear that we may traumatise them as much as we are traumatised”.

She said legal aid lawyers did this kind of work for little financial reward because “we fundamentally believe that we do this job to try to make a difference to those people who are in need at a crisis point in their lives…

“We do it even though we could earn more money by doing private law… because we seriously believe as legal aid lawyers we have a job to do that, if it’s not done, risks miscarriages of justice.”

Repeated surveys of barristers had shown the stress of doing legal aid work was enormous.

She added: “There is a stigma about saying ‘I can’t cope’… At the Bar there is a fetishism of work and over-work, a culture of ‘we can cope because we have to’, and that must stop.”

It could not go on any longer, she urged: “Burnout of barristers, of the system, has gone far enough.”

Senior barristers had to show compassion towards their juniors, although at the same time they had to recognise they were not trained counsellors, she said: “We are there to be the caring, listening ear that simply asks ‘are you okay?’, and does so in a way that we give them permission to say ‘no, I am not’ without thinking we are going to take advantage of that admission.”

Professor Delahunty said senior barristers had to be “alert and compassionate” so far as was possible and be aware that panic affected all barristers – the fear of not having done enough work to do the job in court the next day.

She pointed out that the Criminal Bar Association’s wellbeing web pages had received over 75,000 hits in the past 12 months.

The Bar Council had a 24/7 assistance helpline (0800 169 2040) that was also available to barristers’ clerks.

On a positive note, she described legal aid work as “the most dynamic, passionate, life-affirming, valuable, entertaining, energising, inspirational, job you could ever possibly do”.

She added: “It’s the surge of energy that you get when you cross-examine, when you know by virtue of the questions you’re asking that you’re making a difference to the outcome.

“You know, by virtue of the conversations you have with your client, that for the first time you’re giving them faith in the system they had no knowledge of.

“The job we do is one of the most important any person in society can do if they want to make a difference at the front line.”

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