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How a trauma-informed practice offers a cultural safety net

Hayley Aldrich outlines how running a trauma-informed practice has helped her build trust with her stolen generations clients as well as those who have suffered abuse as children.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 26 October 2023 Big Law
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The Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers partner – who has experience in litigation and compensation law – has developed a practice with a large focus on representing and securing access to justice for members of the stolen generations and others who have suffered as a result of physical, sexual, and emotional/mental abuse as children.

Given the trauma her clients would have endured because of their experiences, Ms Aldrich runs a trauma-informed practice to limit retraumatisation to the extent possible.

Ahead of the Women in Law Forum 2023, Ms Aldrich said that trauma-informed practice must be holistic that flows through the entire justice system.


“Sometimes, people may say they’re going to conduct mediation with a trauma-informed practice, where they will have someone there who will acknowledge their actions and apologise to the client, with a support person present,” she said.

“The mediators would have training in this area, and the defence lawyers are going to be very open meeting with the person and having discussions, which is all well and good. But if the legal process leading up to the mediation has not been trauma-informed, I find that a bit disingenuous. It needs to be from start to finish.”

Ms Aldrich spoke to Lawyers Weekly ahead of her session at the Women in Law Forum, where she will unpack how lawyers could work with clients from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds by understanding their cultural nuances.

A trauma-informed practice is one where lawyers and other members of the legal profession are respectful of clients (taking into account their traumatic experiences) and avoid probing them if they express discomfort with disclosing information.

“But we very much have to explain to them that we can only act with what we know,” Ms Aldrich stressed.

“I can’t best represent them if I don’t know certain things that may assist me and them.”

When serving clients from different cultural backgrounds (including those with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds), Ms Aldrich urged lawyers to provide a cultural safety net by respecting practices that could be sacred to the client and being aware of issues that are taboo.

Alongside this, it is critical for lawyers to collaborate with the defendant rather than be combative with them and work against them, Ms Aldrich underscored.

“I find that if we’re combative, it causes more harm than good,” she said.

“The other side might get their back up, which impacts my client when trying to resolve the matter for them in the best possible way in as short a time frame as possible.”

This would require lawyers to empathise with and listen to their clients to understand how trauma could and has impacted them.

“We need to understand that survivors can lash out, and usually, they lash out at the people they trust, including myself,” Ms Aldrich said.

In order to limit retraumatisation, Ms Aldrich said she emails or messages her clients to notify them beforehand that she would like to discuss matters that could be sensitive for them instead of calling them without warning.

“It’s about ensuring that they’re prepared for us to talk about those issues,” she said.

“I also make sure I’m available for people to call and vent if they need to vent.”

Running a trauma-informed practice has helped Ms Aldrich build rapport and trust with her clients, she said, because it is evident to the client that the lawyer is making a conscious effort to assist them in a sensitive manner.

In unison with this, asking questions with empathy and understanding builds on that trauma-informed framework, Ms Aldrich remarked.

“What that means is that I’m really focused on them as a person,” she said.

“When I talk about the trauma they went through, I always ask about what their life was like and things they remember that aren’t to do with the trauma. Even though that’s the main aspect of the claim, I don’t want them to think that that’s all they are.”

Ms Aldrich said that while she was inherently empathic with her clients, she underwent specific empathy training in the initial stages of her career about the stolen generations run by Aboriginal Affairs.

“It was eye-opening in terms of the different ways intergenerational trauma continues to affect people’s lives and how it’s this insidious thing that goes into every aspect of their lives,” she said.

While government entities offer a range of training programs, Ms Aldrich concluded by encouraging law firms to offer training on how to service clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.

To hear more from Hayley Aldrich about how to run a trauma-informed practice, come along to the Women in Law Forum 2023.

It will take place on Thursday, 23 November 2023, at Crown Melbourne.

Click here to book your tickets and make sure you don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

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