Judges and vicarious trauma

In my last blog I quoted this passage from Peter Glover’s article describing the current low state of judicial morale in this country:

I referred earlier to long-term judicial illness. This was not specifically addressed by the LCJ’s survey but it is, I believe, an issue of real concern. Judges are not just ‘fed-up’. They are subject to stress and anxiety arising, for many, from the gap between resources and demands, and the near impossible task of providing timely dispute resolution for those litigants still able to afford to use the courts. Prevention of such illness and absence has been laid at the door of local leadership judges…

The fact of the matter is that pastoral care is not, and cannot be, effectively provided until it is too late for the judge needing respite. It could be expedited by self-reporting, but that may be seen as an admission of weakness and such self-reporting is unlikely to flourish if a career judiciary is instituted (as suggested most recently by Ryder LJ). Local colleagues are unlikely to provide reports to the leadership judges without consulting the judge affected before something wholly exceptional has occurred, and he/she is likely to attempt to dissuade them from reporting for the reasons already given. Judicial ill-health undoubtedly affects a more substantial minority than is apparent. While the help and care available once something has happened is of high quality and Equality Act adjustments may assist the recovering judge, by then the damage is done….

Into the current debate, stimulated by Prince Harry, about the virtue (or otherwise) of keeping a stiff upper lip, the US National Judicial College has contributed this dramatic testimony by a recently retired judge.

Karen Adam retired from the bench nearly 18 months ago, after 34 years as a City Court magistrate, Superior Court Comissioner and Superior Court judge in or near Tucson, Arizona.  She describes how she was summoned for jury duty last January, but had had to stand down as soon as she realised that the case she was to try was derived from the worst chld abuse case she had handled in her 34 years on th Bench. In her last 18 months as a judge in the juvenile court she had presided at seven different hearings relating to the abuse of the child in question, and in the end she presided over the child’s adoption.

She says of the moment she heard the case mentioned:

As I recalled the photographs and testimony of the abuse, I began to shake uncontrollably. I felt sick to my stomach. I had trouble breathing normally.

That was not the end of the matter. She was discharged from jury service but it then took her 15 minutes to stop shaking before she was able to leave the courthouse. She went and bought a cup of tea in a local coffee shop and rationalised what had happened to her.

She says that when she was the presiding judge at the juvenuile court she had led a drive to transform the court into one which was “trauma-responsive.”  Everyone who worked at the court was required to learn about a phenomenon called”vicarious trauma” before being  trained on how to handle the trauma which might affect court users.

She continues:

So how could I have been so affected by something that had happened two years earlier? I did this work for more than three decades without flinching. It wasn’t that the work didn’t affect me; it profoundly affected me. But I had taught myself how to manage it.

Or so I thought before reporting for jury duty that day.

She explains:

Vicarious trauma is real. It can affect anyone who encounters those who have suffered trauma of any kind, from auto accidents to child abuse to serious medical conditions. Law enforcement officers, doctors, nurses, child-welfare investigators, firefighters, and other first responders are the most obvious potential victims of vicarious trauma.

What isn’t so obvious is what happens when, day after day and case after case, a judge is required to hear about terrible things that happen to people but cannot respond physically or emotionally in a naturally human way.

However horrific the testimony and exhibits, a judge must remain dignified, calm, respectful. Emotions must be buried. The victim in the child-abuse case had such severe injuries that the first doctor who examined her at the emergency room thought she had been born with birth defects. The police officer who found the child, minutes from death, choked up while testifying.

Remaining stoic in the midst of this much trauma was incredibly difficult, but I did it.  At a steep cost.

She says that suppressing emotions for days, months, and years carries a heavy toll:

A kind of numbness can develop. Sleeping and eating suffer. Some people develop substance abuse or addictive exercise regimens. By the time I left the bench, I rarely cried or was visibly upset by anything that happened in my personal life.

Vicarious trauma can happen to any judge on any bench. Every day, people come to court to have judges solve problems they cannot or should not solve themselves: landlord-tenant disputes, child-support collection, custody and visitation disputes, elder abuse. In the child-abuse criminal case to which I was called for jury duty, that judge is going to have to hear the terrible evidence twice because a mistrial was declared two weeks into the trial.

When she started her judicial career in 1981, there was no training on how to avoid this kind of burnout. All day, every day, she would listen to cases involving domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, and when she was appointed a judge of the Juvenile Court six years later, no one talked about how to handle the emotionally difficult caseload.

“For the first few weeks I cried every night.”

On one occasion a prospective adoptive mother had returned to court with the six-year-old child and his tiny suitcase.  She had told him he was going to visit his sister after the hearing.  Instead, she relinquished him back to the child welfare agency:

“I was both angry and incredibly sad. When I knew I was going to cry, I left the bench to compose myself.”

Three children on her delinquency caseload committed suicide.

Others were murdered.

She attended all their funerals.

She says she taught herself to maintain her composure in the courtroom, but although she considered she was a good judge; dignified, respectful and focused. she failed to recognise how this was affecting her emotional health.

Fortunately, things have changed. Over the past decade, judicial educators, including the National Judicial College, have offered conference and seminar sessions on reducing stress, enhancing judicial wellness, and recognizing and managing vicarious trauma.  When offered as stand-alone sessions, these presentations are always the programs first to fill. Scores of online tools are available to help judges determine the extent to which work is affecting their physical and emotional health.

She says:

Most judges have now learned some basic techniques for managing judicial stress. Leave the courtroom on a regular basis. Take a break. A real break. Step outside, talk to a colleague, have a healthy snack, do yoga. When the sessions end and you return to your chambers, don’t let your assistant hand you a stack of phone messages or documents to sign. Very politely say that you are on a break and then take time for yourself. Except for emergencies, whatever needs your attention can wait.

These basic techniques may not be sufficient if a judge is experiencing vicarious trauma. It may be appropriate to talk with a medical or mental health professional. Vicarious trauma is not just judicial stress writ large.

Of course, judges are not the only ones affected in a courthouse. When she saw that a member of her courtroom team had become very anxious during a case involving significant domestic violence, she asked privately whether there was a problem she could help with.  She was told that this woman had grown up in an abusive household and that listening to the testimony was very difficult.  The judge lent her a book from her collection of trauma resources.

I was fortunate that day I reported for jury duty because by then I knew quite a bit about trauma and vicarious trauma. That obviously didn’t immunise me, but it helped me understand what was happening. I now grasp why victims and witnesses sometimes struggle when having to re-live trauma through listening to descriptions or testifying about a traumatic event. I understand why trauma experts urge us to ask what happened to a person rather than what’s wrong with that person when evaluating troubling behavior.

The best part of the experience may have been realizing that my heart was working again.

Last week JUSTICE, an organisation of which I have been a member now for 55 years, published an admirable report on the measures needed to promote greater diversity within the English judiciary.  I am absolutely certain that if there were more female judges in leadership roles much greater attention would be paid to the matters of which Judge Adam has written so vividly.

In my own judicial career although I heard a good deal of very distressing evidence during some of the criminal trials I conducted, I was never exposed to the remorseless day after day exposure to such evidence that is the lot of many judges who hear criminal cases and family cases on a regular basis.    I remember that when Alan Ward was hearing family law cases at the Birmingham Crown Court 25 years ago, he would come back and join us at lunch or at the end of a working day emotionally drained after hearing the many different ways in which children were being abused by those thy should have been able to trust.

If Brexit means a fresh start, it should mean a fresh Lord Chancellor and a fresh look at the scale of the resources that should be being provided for judges and court staff who have to handle these dreadful cases.  Judges in the family courts will be very familiar with what I am writing about – but we very rarely hear about it.  These articles by Peter Glover and Karen Adam provide a useful wake up call.




3 thoughts on “Judges and vicarious trauma

  1. In 1998 I pioneered accredited training on Secondary Trauma, Burnout & Vicarious Trauma for lawyers, when President of Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, [ACAL] I was motivated to do so because of firsthand experience of Secondary Trauma. I have since gone on to deliver the training to paediatricians, nurses, social workers etc.

    I have tried to raise awareness of this issue for nearly 20 years, but denial and fear of stigma has been too great.

    There is an urgent need to evolve professionalism here. There is no stigma to admitting that we are impacted by exposure to traumatic cases and the suffering of others on a daily basis. It is the natural and disruptive by-product of our work.

    Secondary Traumatic Stress is unavoidable, if it is not managed, then it progresses to Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, the symptoms of which are the same as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    There is an urgent need to bring this matter out into the open. So we can fill the vacuum in legal education, and provide much needed resources. Until then, I fear that we may well have the vulnerable stressed and traumatised presiding over / acting for the vulnerable stressed and traumatised, in some cases, perhaps contrary to professional Conduct Rules.

    I have written on the issue over the years in The Times, ACAL & APIL newsletters,Solicitors Journal & Counsel.


    My next article on Secondary Trauma ,will shortly be published in Legal Voice

    Thank you Sir Henry. Hopefully more people will come forward and we can evolve professionalism, get the education & resources in place.


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