Professional responses to family violence by lawyers and other service professionals

Contributed by SarahBright and current to 27 July 2018

Trauma Informed Response

For lawyers and other service providers, it is important to remember that how you respond to someone where there is or may be family violence may have a significant impact on them and their matter – no matter who you act for. The way you respond could empower that person to take action to break the cycle of violence not only for them but for their children or could cause them to feel hopeless, that the system is working against them and disengage from pursuing any assistance and returning to a risky and violent environment.

The role of lawyers is first and foremost to provide their client with independent legal advice.

However, the way this is delivered is just as important, if not more important, to avoid you as part of the legal system inadvertently causing that person who is seeking help from you further trauma. The most effective way you as a professional can respond to family violence is with a trauma informed (or trauma based) response.

Practical Tip: The key takeaway messages for service providers to provide a trauma informed response are:
  1. Maintain objectivity but actively listen and take their concerns seriously. Let them feel they have been heard (this can be more important to them than the outcome).
  2. Assess for risk (continuous assessment as risk changes through the life of a matter or even during an appointment). Continuous training in risk assessment and screening and understanding frameworks used by legal professionals throughout Australia in different jurisdictions and other related service professionals will aid your ability to assist your clients.
  3. Create a safe space for the person to tell their story in their own time, in their own way. Do not try to force their response into your legal framework. Adopt a logical chronological approach and let the client guide the conversation.
  4. Ask the client what they want from your service and find out what support they have had already.
  5. Provide them with advice about their options and the potential consequences of those, but emphasise that it is the client’s choice what they want to do, including whether they follow your advice.
  6. Do not judge (or look as though you are). It takes a lot of courage and increases the risk to victims for them to seek help. Do not be (or appear to your client as though you are) condescending or patronising (e.g. do not tell them to leave the relationship – sometimes that can be the most dangerous thing they can do and may show a lack of understanding by that professional of the level of risk for the victim-survivor and lack of empathy towards their situation).
  7. Identify the needs of the client – legal and non-legal.
  8. If you cannot provide advice or help them with any of their legal and non-legal needs, make a referral (ideally with client’s consent a warm or facilitated referral) to someone who may be able to help. See the WA Family Violence Referral Booklet here:
  9. Think of safety as the primary concept (is what I am advising the safest option for my client and/or their children? Will it increase the risk to this person or their family members? What safety planning can I do or who else can assist this client with safety planning for themselves and/or their children?)
  10. Prepare the client for the possibility of triggers or re-trauma and plan for it (e.g. book a counselling appointment after a legal appointment to debrief. This will assist your client to also understand the boundaries of your expertise (e.g. I am your lawyer and not a counsellor).
  11. Think of perpetrator accountability (e.g. where there is family violence, am I sending the message to my client that this behaviour is family violence and is unacceptable or am I just focusing on the actions and behaviours on the victim-survivor?).
  12. Aim to help your client receive a holistic service (i.e. although you may be assisting them with just one aspect of their problem, e.g. family law advice, help your client understand the ‘bigger picture’ and how your advice might be impacted by actions they take in other areas (e.g. as a witness in criminal law proceedings, in related care and protection matters, in RO proceedings) so clients can make informed decisions taking into account the entire family violence and related systems.


Being trauma informed:
  • limits the risk of your interaction with the client causing further trauma to them while they are seeking assistance from you.
  • includes being culturally competent so we can keep in check your own unconscious bias and be more aware of the ways in which people from diverse backgrounds and communities may experience family violence.

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