Diary of a legal aid lawyer

Diary of a legal aid lawyer: Why we need to be trauma-informed

As family lawyers, we support clients through the worst that life can bring. Whether that’s the end of a relationship or abusive behaviour, it’s usually what brings them to us in the first place. We need to understand trauma and how it affects how someone functions, and the first step is to become a trauma informed practice.

Becoming trauma informed doesn’t mean becoming counsellors; it means learning to address the barriers experienced by traumatised clients trying to access the legal process. Meeting with a traumatised client may take longer – they may find it difficult to remember events and details. Being trauma informed means accepting it will take longer to build trust and collate information. This may seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to manage targets, but with a less anxious client and the information you need from the start, you’ll save time later.

Trauma survivors often have difficulty expressing themselves. They may find it hard to listen and understand what you’re saying. Without support, this can lead to avoidance and even disengagement from taking your advice or telling you what you need to know to build their case. By actively listening and showing genuine care and concern, you’ll build better relationships. But it’s also really important to set boundaries about what you can and can’t help with. Transparency promotes trust and helps prevent feelings of powerlessness.

In most cases the focus is, quite rightly, on taking a trauma informed approach to any child involved. Conversely, there’s usually a lack of a trauma-informed approach towards the parents by any professional. But parents in care proceedings have often suffered trauma themselves: it’s frequently the reason that they find themselves involved in care proceedings. By adopting a trauma-informed approach, we can potentially make the process a little less frightening for them.

Key to becoming a trauma informed practice is safety, trustworthiness, collaboration, empowerment, and choice. Applying these may require change within the business, but the benefits can be considerable and wide-ranging.

For example, by taking a proactive approach to safety, a safer physical and emotional environment will be provided for clients and colleagues. Offering a better quality service reduces the chance of negative encounters. Giving opportunities for choice, power, and control back to clients may improve their relationships with all professionals, not just lawyers. We need to assist clients in building resilience and support them with a strengths-based focus to their case.

Ultimately, by being trauma informed we will improve client satisfaction and as a result see an increase in success, job satisfaction, and referrals.

By Carrie Laws, Director at the Family Law Company

The Family Law Company will return with a new entry to their diary of a legal aid lawyer each month, available exclusively on Today’s Family Lawyer.

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