Invisible scar tissue—working in the criminal law

'Scar tissue that I wish you saw—understanding and addressing the wellbeing impacts of working in criminal law' was the latest in a series of hard-hitting events hosted by Te Herenga Waka Centre for Justice Innovation.

Dr Nichola Tyler and Professor Yvette Tinsley at a Centre for Justice Innovation event
Dr Nichola Tyler is a senior lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science, Swinburne University of Technology and Professor Yvette Tinsley is the Academic Director for Te Herenga Waka Centre for Justice Innovation and a criminal Law lecturer.

If you’ve ever attended one of Professor Yvette Tinsley’s lectures, you will know that she loves weaving song lyrics into her material. It’s no surprise, then, that ‘Scar tissue’ by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, was chosen as the title for this latest event—a dissemination lecture about the findings from a confronting new piece of research into wellbeing in the Law.

While much is already known about the impacts of working with emotional trauma for ‘helping professions’ such as nurses, psychologists, or social workers, very little has been done to understand wellbeing in the legal profession—particularly for those dealing with traumatic material in criminal cases—either in New Zealand or abroad.

Professor Tinsley and Dr Nichola Tyler, a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Swinburne University of Technology, saw this as an opportunity to join forces to understand what happens when people work in the criminal courts, or the wider justice system. This is where Law and Psychology meet.

Professor Tinsley and Dr Tyler’s research specifically focused on the experiences of criminal lawyers including Police prosecutors, defence counsel, and Crown prosecutors, who are often working in emotionally charged situations and with traumatic material.

Examples of wellbeing impacts experienced by these groups were burnout, depression, anxiety, and social isolation. Contributing to this is the often delicate nature of the relationship between counsel and the victim or defendant, doing what society deems as ‘dirty work’, or dealing with traumatic material, particularly in sexual violence cases. Feeling unable to express their true emotions in the courtroom, together with limited access to help, tended to further exacerbate the sense of isolation for some.

Dr Tyler believes that “talking about the professional and institutional care needs of criminal lawyers is a vital first step for improving wellbeing in the profession and ensuring necessary support is provided for those working within the criminal justice system.”

Professor Tinsley agrees, “addressing wellbeing impacts on criminal lawyers is important to not only keep individuals safe, but to safeguard the things about the justice process that we hold dear—we can only hope for a well-functioning justice system if we have staff whose wellbeing is looked after.”

While the negative impacts of working in the criminal law were perhaps unsurprising to some in the audience, there were also positive findings from this research. Offering a voice for people who would not otherwise have one and meeting a community need were some of the main motivators for people to continue in the job.

Dr Tyler believes that a cross-disciplinary approach was particularly important for this research to help draw together different perspectives and to understand the complexities of working in the criminal law.

“Ultimately, the aim is to develop innovative policy and practice solutions that can be tailored to the needs of criminal lawyers and the systems within which they work,” she says.

The research team’s next steps include seeking funding to develop and test a “toolkit” for employers and individuals, and to expand their work to other groups who work in the criminal courts.

Professor Tinsley’s goal is for more work such as this to be showcased through the Centre for Justice Innovation, creating discussion, debate, and an impetus for improvements to the justice sector as a whole.

“This research sits squarely within the objectives of the Centre by utilising an interdisciplinary approach to create an evidence base for change in the justice system,” says Professor Tinsley.

You can listen to the full recording here.

Interested in the study of Criminal Law at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington?

Find out more about our Bachelor of Laws—LLB degree.