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Vicarious trauma in the legal profession

By: Mark Tottenham BL

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(This piece was originally published in Law Ireland in January 2020)

In December 2019, it was reported that a former ‘content moderator’ was suing Facebook Ireland, as well as a recruitment agency, for psychological injuries (“Man sues Facebook over having to watch ‘extremely disturbing content’”, The Irish Times, 4 December 2019). His job was to review material on the site and decide whether it should be removed. He had to look at ‘very disturbing’ pictures and videos, including executions, lethal beatings, stonings, whippings, abuse of children, animal torture and extreme sexual content.

Psychological injuries have also been reported in the legal profession arising from dealing with extreme visual content, or from working with traumatised clients. Described as ‘vicarious trauma’, it has been recognised by the Law Societies in both the UK and Ireland, and they have both given advice as to how to recognise and deal with it.

An internal report in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2019 found that nearly 60% of the legal staff were suffering from medium to high levels of trauma arising from the distressing nature of their work, with specific reference to abuse cases and road deaths. (“Nearly 60% of DPP legal staff are suffering from trauma”, The Irish Times, 28 September 2019).

In 2015, a study was published concerning the effect of vicarious trauma on Irish barristers (Bulbulia et al, ‘The impact of vicarious trauma on barristers practising criminal law: an armoury of resilience’, Cork Journal of Applied Psychology (2015) 33–45). The study investigated a number of experienced barristers who had worked on cases involving trauma, such as serious assault, rape or murder. The conclusion, as suggested in the title, was that the barristers had an ‘armoury of resilience’ that helped protect them from such trauma, although individual barristers suffered some of the symptoms of PTSD such as nightmares or intrusive memories — and most considered that the work had affected them to some degree. Most appeared to have developed protective mechanisms to help them deal with the effects of too much exposure to traumatic material.

The BBC Radio Law in Action programme examined the issue of vicarious trauma in March 2019, in a programme entitled ‘Barristers on the Brink’. A number of UK barristers reported symptoms of vicarious trauma after dealing with serious sexual offences.

The programme impliedly linked the rise in reports of vicarious trauma to the severe cuts to the legal aid system in the UK. While it would be easy to take a cynical view, it may be that properly remunerated lawyers feel that they are more mentally prepared to deal with material that poses a risk to health, while those working for less money simply feel exploited.

On a related note, there seems to be a dichotomy between the staff of the DPP’s office who reported trauma in larger numbers than the barristers interviewed for the 2015 study. It may be that the precarious nature of barristers' work in Ireland, which requires practitioners to accept instructions on a case by case basis, means that they are unwilling or unable to admit — even to themselves — that their work is leading to mental health issues.

Now that these issues have been recognised and reported, professional bodies need to take steps to ensure the wellbeing of their members. The outcome of the case against Facebook Ireland may have wider implications.

Mark Tottenham BL


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