Vicarious Trauma in the Legal Profession
Our last blog reviewed the decision of Hegarty relating to vicarious trauma for Ambulance Officers and firs responders. But what about lawyers?
Often, in our own line of work, we are exposed to:-
- Daily communications with a range of people who are under great stress;
- Performing difficult court work;
- Viewing photographs, audio and visual material of a traumatic nature;
- Taking statements and examining sometimes thousands of pages of material about traumatic scenes or events and the subsequent injuries or sometimes even fatalities.
It is not an easy job by any means. It is often challenging intellectually, physically and emotionally.
As lawyers, we are trained (or should be trained) at keeping emotionally distant from our client’s issues, conflicts or trauma, but we are humans after all.
So lets look at a recent case involving vicarious trauma involving the legal profession.
Kozarov v Victoria  HCA 12
Ms Kozarov was a lawyer working in the Specialist Sexual Offences Unit (“SSOU”) of Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (“OPP”).
She suffered a psychiatric injury resulting from vicarious trauma during the course of her employment.
The Court found that the State of Victoria’s (“Victoria”) duty was “not merely to provide [that] safe system of work” but to “establish, maintain and enforce such a system”. Victoria conceded that its duty required it to do “almost everything” it could (short of forcing a rotation” to protect Ms Kozarov from the risk of psychiatric injury.
Victoria had in fact established an OH&S framework and vicarious trauma training from 2007 and a formal policy enacted by the beginning of 2008. So, Victoria had recognised Vicarious Trauma as an occupational health and safety issues, particularly within the SSOU.
Here’s a summary of the main events raised by Ms Kozarov: –
- She commenced work with SSOU in June 2009;
- She dealt with cases of abhorrent child rape and offences of gross depravity;
- She had to consider, among other things, witness statements, video and audio recorded evidence which contained graphic and disturbing content; and
- she was also required to watch explicit child pornography;
- In 2009 – 2010, she attended a workshop on vicarious trauma. She gave examples of how her work was affecting her as a mother and spoke of being uncomfortable even leaving her children with their grandparents because of thoughts of inappropriate behaviour.
- By late 2010 Ms Kozarov was increasingly vocal at monthly staff meetings including instigating discussions on how work was affecting the daily lives of staff.
- In March 2011 Ms Kozarov attended an after hours staff meeting held without management present and during this meeting “significant concerns” were raised about how the SSOU staff were struggling and felt they did not have the support they needed.
- In April 2011 Ms Kozarov signed a staff memorandum setting out “stress related symptoms experienced by solicitors” in the SSOU.
- She was also communicating with her superiors about her workload, specific cases and her health.
- Then she resisted the allocation of the “Lim case” due to her workload, but was unsuccessful. During that case, she reported feeling unwell, dizzy. She took sick leave for 2 weeks.
- During her leave, Ms Kozarov became aware that the complainants in the Lim case had attempted to commit suicide.
It was found, and upheld in the High Court of Australia, that Victoria breached its duty of care to Ms Kozarov in that: –
- The OH&S framework within the SSOU was “woefully inadequate” and did not include a sufficient program of rigorous training for staff and management on this issue;
- Did not provide training to assist management to identify ‘red flags’;
- When a welfare enquiry was plainly required (around end of August 2011), it did not occur and there was no offer of occupational screening;
- There was no system in place to respond to the outcome of any such screening.
The Court found in these circumstances that had Ms Kozarov been offered an appropriate welfare enquiry, she would have taken them up on that offer and any screening by a clinician at or about August 2011 would have probably revealed Ms Kozarov work-related symptoms of PTSD.
The Court found that Ms Kozarov would have cooperated and her exposure to trauma would have been reduced.