Gillian Mawdsley: A wake-up call for the legal profession

Gillian Mawdsley: A wake-up call for the legal profession

Gillian Mawdsley looks at the inquest into the recent death of lawyer Vanessa Ford and what the profession should learn from the tragic case.

Vanessa Ford’s death on 23 September 2023 provides, if required, further evidence that legal professionals need to be supported regarding their mental health.

Vanessa Ford was a partner at Pinsent Masons. Her inquest was held on 27 February 2024. She was 47, living in London and left a husband and two sons. She had been working 18-hour days on 777 Partners’ acquisition of Everton Football Club and had travelled to Manchester for a lunch on the day before her death to mark the conclusion of the deal.

The circumstances of her death were that she had consumed a significant amount of alcohol while undergoing an acute mental health crisis. “She accessed… and allowed herself to drop onto the railway tracks below, where she was later struck by a train. The coroner found that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that she intended to take her own life.”

The inquest concluded that the medical cause of death was multiple traumatic injuries. Significantly with no secondary cause recorded. However it is still a warning as to her state of mind regarding overwork and pressure.

The coroner issued a Regulation 28 Prevention of Future Death notice only to Network Rail, citing safety and ease of access to the relevant railway line and seeking a practical result. However, what responsibility was held by her employers and the legal profession more widely in seeking to prevent other deaths as a result of the type of culture that prevails? It is argued that the legal profession should consider how to avoid or learn from this event. Including vicarious trauma training for all entering the profession could provide a start. That starts on day one of legal studies and continues on.

By setting out some of the experience of the Open University’s (OU) in delivery of vicarious trauma training, there is potential scope for HE institutions to assume an initial responsibility as they teach students at the start of hopefully a long and successful legal career. They can ensure that law students are equipped with the skills to cope with the strains on being a legal professional. As part of academic undergraduate law training, they could incorporate delivery of basic vicarious trauma training as part of that education – and that training would then be able to be enforced by later postgraduate and professional training. But it would start as students usually grapple with the distressing realities of criminal law.

At the OU, for several years now, students who undertake the project in the Criminal Appeals Clinic (CAC) have been required to attend mandatory training on vicarious trauma. The CAC is part of the pro bono Open Justice activities and of the module W360 Justice in Action.

The CAC project allows students to explore a convicted prisoner’s case where they allege that they have suffered a miscarriage of justice. It is an action of last resort as these prisoners will have exhausted by then the criminal justice system in unsuccessful appeals. They will have been through the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Such cases are inevitably distressing, as these are serious crimes such as murder where the defendant maintains their innocence. The case/court papers will normally be voluminous, often with highly distressing evidence to study.

The British Medical Association defines vicarious trauma as “a process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors. Anyone who engages empathetically with survivors of traumatic incidents, torture, and material relating to their trauma, is potentially affected, including doctors and other health professionals”.

This vicarious trauma training is directly focused on ensuring that students are aware of the meaning of the term. They need to cross-reference that understanding with the stresses of the legal role amply illustrated by the circumstances of this death. They need to be aware of their own wellbeing and foster an awareness of their responsibilities to others.

However, the purpose of delivering vicarious trauma training is not just to support the students in the CAC, important as that may be. It is much more in seeking to underpin and provide a foundation for their future roles within the profession. It seeks to equip students with the knowledge and more importantly, the signposting which will take them to help as and when it may subsequently be required.

To that extent, the OU has been at the vanguard of calling for all students studying law to require to undergo vicarious trauma training early on. In Vanessa Ford’s memory, the profession should unite to avoid a recurrence of exactly this type of event and learn from the inquest.

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