Scotland is aiming to be one of the first trauma-aware countries in the world. Compelling evidence is now available in the public realm that trauma can have a lifelong impact on both the physical and mental health of a child, as well as their behaviour. Children who have experienced trauma can be impacted in the way they think, the way they interact with people, their learning and their risk-taking behaviour.
Risk factors known to be linked to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include alcohol or drug misuse and addiction, neglect, death of a parent, domestic abuse or violence within the family, parental divorce or separation, a parent with mental health issues, sexual abuse and poverty. Academic studies have found that as the number of trauma factors that a person has experienced increases, so does their susceptibility – and their risk of having a range of physical and mental health conditions. Their mental health risk brings the increased likelihood of them ending up in prison, or engaging in violent and/or antisocial behaviour.
Trauma Aware Lawyers in Scotland is a newly established movement of lawyers who are seeking to use their own personal and professional experience to educate all professionals involved in the legal system, including judges, court staff and law students.
The founders are Melissa Rutherford (Rutherford Sheridan Solicitors), Tony Bone (Tony Bone Legal), Iain Smith (Keegan Smith Defence Solicitors) and Nadine Martin (Harper Macleod LLP). We are four practising lawyers in Scotland who have, for one reason or another, become aware of trauma and ACEs and who are committed to bringing compassion to the legal system. We hope that we can educate and influence further understanding of what having a trauma-informed legal and court system in Scotland means, and that the practice of the law can be empathetic and caring.
We felt like we couldn’t keep this to ourselves any more. This is so vital to how we treat our clients or those most in need of our help. As a result of our epiphany and our new learning, all four of us now carry out our roles in a different way. Lawyers aren’t taught about trauma at all, despite the fact that most of the people we represent in court have suffered trauma in their lives.
We feel that we have a duty, or even an obligation now to share what we know and to raise awareness of the impact of trauma on the people we deal with. We need a person-centred approach for both victims and accused persons within the legal system.
The court system is one where people are often in crisis and addiction as a result of something that has happened to them. We must educate ourselves so that we have the empathy and deep understanding of trauma in order to build relationships and trust, and to ensure that all individuals involved in the court system or legal system in Scotland are treated with respect and not re-traumatised.
As a movement, our objective is to raise awareness of the effects of childhood trauma within the legal sector in Scotland. We really want to change the way that the whole of the justice system treats people in the legal system, by raising awareness among lawyers and decision-makers of how trauma impacts on people and the unforeseen consequences of their decisions in later life, which ultimately leads to a never-ending cycle of incarceration or an inordinate impact on the public purse. As we now know, all too often ACEs manifest in adolescence and/or adulthood in all sorts of ways. The old approach is not working, and is certainly not helping those most affected by childhood trauma and whose skills and talents are lost forever.
We would like to thank the Law Society of Scotland for putting a CPD resource online on trauma. We hope to work with the Society in the future to create further CPD seminars and updates, and add to these resources so they can be accessed by the profession. The Society also recognises that being trauma-aware is essential to provide a good service to clients. A quote from its website highlights this: “Trauma-informed knowledge is essential to elevate your client care skills within many practice areas, including family law, criminal law, child law and personal injury.”
Melissa Rutherford is co-founder of Rutherford Sheridan, Glasgow and a board member of charity Indigo Childcare. Tony Bone practises as Tony Bone Legal, Kilmarnock.
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