There is a great deal of trust placed in solicitors who are expected to always act in their client’s best interests. It is important to regularly take a step back and think “am I doing what is best for my client?”
With the passing of the Limitation (Child Abuse)(Scotland) Act 2017, we saw the removal of the three year time-bar in personal injury actions where injuries inflicted were as a result of abuse occurring as a child. Unfortunately, this act did not change the law on prescription, meaning that for those whose abuse did not go beyond the 26th September 1964 there remains a barrier in being able to bring forward a claim.
When working within the Survivors Department at Thompsons (SVR) there is a great emphasis on one’s ability to self-reflect. Whether in a meeting with a client, on a call, sending an email, letter or even working on a client’s case, at the forefront of the solicitor’s mind is “is this best for my client - who is also a survivor.” Sometimes this means knowing when to stop, think and make sure you are taking a trauma informed approach.
Having recently presented at the Thompsons Annual Conference 2019, I was asked to discuss what being “trauma-informed” means. I took great delight in asking for audience participation where a number of colleagues were asked to stand up and speak about their most embarrassing interaction that they had had with a colleague. Of course, the room was immediately filled with tension and nervous anticipation, of both those standing and their peers, as they were asked to describe an embarrassing event which they perhaps had no control over. Don’t worry – I did not force anyone to go through with tales of the office. Although simplistic in the approach, this highlighted just how truly daunting an experience it can be asking an individual to divulge the most personal of events to strangers.
When solicitors ask a client to meet in order to obtain a statement we are ultimately asking them to tell us what happened, starting from Point A and take us through to Point B, Point C and so on. When it comes to working with survivors, we are ultimately saying “tell me about the most traumatic event you experienced.”
One of the many impacts of abuse that we see on a daily basis within the SVR Dept is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can show itself in many forms: anxiety, depression, guilt, fear, mistrust, loss of hope - the list goes on. Being a trauma informed solicitor means that, first and foremost, you cannot expect your client to go from Point A to Point B in the space of one hour during the initial meeting. Such unrealistic expectations will only increase the stress a survivor is under having to sit with a stranger in order to discuss traumatic events, some of which they continue to feel fear, guilt and ashamed of.
Being a trauma informed solicitor means willingly accepting that your client’s ability to provide you the information you need to pursue a case for them can take hours, weeks and possibly even months. In some instances, clients may never be able to verbalise what they have been through.
There is also a fine balance between offering enough time for a survivor to come in to your office, get comfortable enough with you to talk about their experiences but not be in a meeting so long they risk becoming re-traumatised. Triggering a survivor does not benefit anyone in the client-solicitor relationship; however, a client does not necessarily always know how to act in their own best interests. This places the responsibility on you, as the professional, to know when it is not in your client’s best interests to press on.
Fortunately in the SVR Dept we can rely on the support and guidance of professionals, such as our friends at Wellbeing Scotland, to offer advice on being trauma informed. For those who are not so fortunate, it is imperative to seek the proper training and development needed to offer legal services to survivors.
Being trauma informed also means recognising the risks and signs of you becoming vicariously traumatised, which is not nearly enough discussed within the wider legal profession. You and your colleagues can only be effective, trauma informed solicitors if you yourself know when it is time to take a step back and talk to each other. In the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month we should all know it’s okay to not be okay. If not for yourself, be conscious that your clients rely on you being mentally healthy too.