The importance of workplace safety plans in family law
As vicarious traumatic stress within the profession increases, family law firms have been urged to implement a workplace safety plan for staff involved in family violence matters.
As recently revealed in the Smokeball and FamilyProperty State of Family Law Series webinar, family violence is on the rise in Australia, with 68 per cent of the 2,000 Australian family law professionals who attended the webinar confirming that most of their family law cases contain allegations of family violence.
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This correlates with the fact that in the 2022 financial year, 80 per cent of cases filed in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) raised allegations of domestic and family violence, and 89 per cent had one or more risk factors.
Further, 60 per cent of family lawyers stated they did not have a workplace plan for managing their own and their team’s safety when being involved in family violence matters.
VM Family Law principal family lawyer Katherine Manby is an advocate for compulsory family violence training and said that all firms should have safety plans in place.
“We work in an exceptionally hard area of law, in terms of intellectual, emotional and physical difficulties. We are often on the receiving end of inappropriate communications to our client and our office. It is important that workplaces therefore have a plan in place to ensure their team members can seek help, where required. This can be in the form of regular team meetings, meetings with more senior team members and psychological support. Without these measures, there is a real risk our team will suffer emotional harm with the matters they are dealing with,” she said.
“This not only impacts our team members, but it can also hinder a practitioner’s ability to undertake their role to the best of their ability. This could lead to a victim not being properly identified or assisted, which could have catastrophic consequences. It is also appropriate to have some level of safety planning in place for team members to ensure their physical safety when engaging with perpetrators of domestic violence. Things such as the front door to an office locked at all times, an escape plan from the office, [and] engagement with the local police station so they are aware of the work your firm does and the risks involved.
“Safety for family law practitioners should be a priority for the lawyers themselves, the firms they work for, the judiciary and also the law societies. I have seen a huge shift in recent years of the seriousness of vicarious traumatic stress (VTS) within these groups, which only goes to show how usual this is in family law. I think the biggest improvement that can be made is to ensure the legal fraternity continues to be exposed to family violence training.”
Vicarious traumatic stress (VTS) is the cumulative emotional impact of working with people who have been traumatised and working with associated traumatic material. VTS is a real issue for family law practitioners who often are repeatedly exposed to traumatised clients and traumatic material through their work – 78 per cent of family law professionals attending the Smokeball series reported feeling the effect of VTS, with 41 per cent confirming that they have experienced VTS and another 37 per cent possibly experiencing it.
Dr Adrian Allen, Healthy Mind Clinic principal clinical psychologist, said there were a number of factors at an individual level that may increase the risk of developing VTS, including a practitioner’s own traumatic experiences in the past, being prone to depression or anxiety, and being at a similar life stage or event to a client. Workplace factors such as excessive workloads, poor resource management, and encouragement of harmful attitudes around competitiveness and independence can all leave lawyers vulnerable to developing VTS.
“While family law practitioners will inevitably be confronted repeatedly with traumatic material and traumatised clients, there are many important tools and skills we can use to protect ourselves against developing VTS,” he explained.
“These tools include practising mindfulness, controlled breathing, engaging in realistic, helpful thinking, engaging in regular pleasurable activity and exercise, maintaining social connections, ensuring regular sleeping and eating schedules, setting boundaries (i.e. not bringing family violence case materials and other traumatic materials home with you, leaving them at the office and only working on them during your set work-related hours), and seeking guidance from trauma-informed mentors and supervisors.”
The potential for VTS in legal practitioners has been increasingly recognised over approximately the last 10 years by both legal practitioners and professional associations, outlined Dr Allen.
“Both individual and workplace factors can increase risk of developing VTS. At an individual level, this can include past history of personal trauma and having experienced previous difficulties with anxiety or depression. Tendencies to perfectionism and pessimism may also confer risk. Workplace factors that can increase risk include long hours, lack of control over caseload, lack of trauma-informed support for workers, and cultural factors that encourage independence, not showing weakness and stigmatise mental health concerns,” he said.
“Embedding trauma-informed approaches within workplace safety policy can help mitigate the above risk factors to help foster psychologically safe workplaces. Such approaches should include provision of regular specialised training to all personnel in recognising and preventing/responding to VTS, along with ongoing trauma-informed practice and supervision.”
And particularly as VTS is more common within family law firms, they should constantly consider the physical and psychological safety of their staff. In line with this, policies should include counselling for both legal and admin staff who are exposed to family violence incidents through creating reports.
“This is one of the most stressful periods in our client’s lives, and this will absolutely impact the ability [of] clients and the other parties to engage in legal issues. Quite often, this results in people behaving in a manner that they ordinarily would not do, making our jobs as family lawyers that much harder,” Ms Manby added.
“I don’t think anything can entirely prevent the risk of VTS in our team members; however, proper planning can mitigate the risks. The more assistance team members have to discuss what they have witnessed, been involved in or had to take instructions on, the more likely a team member will be able to protect their emotional health and have the support required to deal with these issues.”