It's good to talk: the new therapies being rolled out to boost barristers' wellbeing

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we take a look at some of the issues affecting those in the legal profession specifically, including podcasts designed to assist anyone who has been involved in a case with traumatic subject matter. 

  • Last updated May 16, 2018 3:19:20 PM
  • Emma Finamore

Following recent reports of jurors and barristers dealing with emotionally distressing cases, the Bar Council has made available a series of talking therapies to help their members and others deal with issues like addiction, trauma and anxiety, which may help with dealing with the impact of these kind of cases.

The Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group has announced a series of wellbeing podcasts; the latest in a series of online resources aimed at supporting the wellbeing and mental health of barristers, chambers staff and those aspiring to join the profession. The podcasts – which can be found on the Wellbeing at the Bar website - cover three topics: ‘Recovering from Addiction’, ‘Recovering from Trauma’ and ‘Overcoming Anxiety’, and range in length from roughly 10-20 minutes each. The free podcasts are designed to provide both information and practical tools to help members of the barristers’ profession to explore and overcome any negative thoughts or feelings they are having. 

Rachel Spearing, Chair of the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group, says they can act as a support for those dealing with distressing cases and heavy workloads. “Many barristers deal with stressful situations and potentially traumatic trials in the course of their work, and it is therefore important that they process the resulting impact on them in a healthy way,” she said.

“We are constantly looking for ways to enable professionals across the Bar to safeguard their wellbeing in ways that are most convenient to their busy working schedules and build it in as part of their daily lives. We hope the new talking therapy podcasts will help to make this a reality for more barristers and chambers’ staff.

“Everyone finds different types of resources useful, so we aim to cater for as many preferences as possible – if the podcasts don’t work for some, we encourage them to explore the range of alternative resources available at Wellbeing at the Bar.

“We are particularly grateful to Sarah Wiesendanger for her expertise and invaluable efforts in the creation of these podcasts.”

Sarah Wiesendanger, a psychotherapist and mindfulness practitioner, agrees that this support is needed by barristers: “These kinds of issues arise in all walks of life, and barristers are not immune to being affected by emotionally demanding work,” she said. “The talking therapies can provide an easily accessible, much-needed mechanism for self-help amidst the hustle and bustle of life at the Bar.”

Wellbeing at the Bar recognises, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “Talking therapy is just one approach to tackling stress, vicarious trauma and addiction; it won’t work for everyone", said Sam Mercer, Head of Policy: Equality, Diversity and CSR. "The podcasts are available for anyone in the world of the Bar that may be dealing with these kinds of issues, to try out and see if they find them useful. It is still too soon to say how helpful individuals have found them, but I am keen to hear back from those that have used them – this helps us work out what more we need to do to support wellbeing across the profession, at every level.”

The introduction of these tools follows rising concern regarding the potentially traumatic work carried out in the legal profession. Earlier this year, a juror who served on a high profile murder trial criticised the level of support provided to people called up for jury duty.

Rebecca was one of the jurors on the Becky Watts murder trial in 2015, a seven-week case that was so harrowing she said it had a disturbing effect on her. She told ITV News in February that she was left "emotionally isolated" with no support to help cope with the experience.

Rebecca told the broadcaster: "I think that during the whole court process, I didn't eat, I didn't sleep," said the mum-of-three. "So I think I lost about three-quarters of a stone during the seven weeks.

"I felt very emotionally isolated so I felt that I had nowhere to turn, I had no way in which I would process all that information that I was seeing. I had no way to debrief. And once you've seen you can't unsee."

She said that she received no support from the court aside from a suggestion she calls the Samaritans. So – realising that she had been left traumatised by learning graphic information about the murder – Rebecca paid for professional help herself. "I don't think there was a duty of care provided - a duty of care to me suggests that your emotional and mental wellbeing is being looked after during the course of that trial and afterwards," she said.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) also told ITV News that jurors hearing the most harrowing evidence are not getting the right support, and raised concerns that this could affect their judgement. Unlike in Scotland, jurors in England and Wales get no formal support from the courts for any trauma they suffer.

However, in response Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) said there is "a well-established support system in place" for jurors, while acknowledging that "more can be done" to improve their experience. The organisation also said a range of support services are available, including counselling from GPs and advice from the Samaritans.

Dr Noelle Robertson, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the University of Leicester, has carried out research into the effects of being a juror. She told ITV News: "What we found was that those jurors who were exposed to harrowing evidence, graphic images, high-heightened emotions in the courtroom, for a small proportion of those they experienced trauma-like symptoms".

The CBA said it is, alongside the Bar Council (BC) actively providing services and information to help members cope with distressing cases. A spokesperson for the body agreed: "Assistance available for the judiciary and court staff is often inadequate. No specialist help is provided by the criminal justice system for jurors. Court staff are not given training to recognise signs of trauma in jurors, and there is a risk that jurors who are being deeply affected by their task may fall through the net."

The Wellbeing Working Group has been developed to be as representative as possible, consisting of members from the Bar Council, the Inns of Court, Specialist Bar Associations, the Circuits, the Institute of Barristers' Clerks (IBC) and the Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA).

Wellbeing at the Bar (WATB) aims to provide barristers and chambers' personnel with the information and skills they need to stay well, support members of the profession through difficulties that affect their professional life, and help those responsible for or who are supporting those in difficulty or crisis. It’s already working towards those aims, with its website receiving over 150,000 hits since launching: the first step in a long journey towards better mental health for many in the legal industry.


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