Why all courtroom workers need mental health support now: defence lawyer
12 former jurors wrote letters to the Federal Justice Minister calling for a program to support jurors
This summer, Ottawa defence lawyer Michael Spratt worked six sexual assault cases back to back.
The cases were traumatic. He paid a price in depression and anxiety. Now, he is speaking out about why lawyers, jurors, judges and all courtroom workers need help to handle the trauma that working some trials can cause.
The CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with Spratt about why jurors and other people working in courtrooms need help after seeing traumatic evidence. Here's an edited and abridged transcript of that conversation. Listen to the full interview in the player at the top of this page.
Michael Spratt, Ottawa defence lawyer
What is it like to be in a courtroom when traumatic evidence is presented?
It's a very intense experience. That's especially true when we are dealing with trials that jurors hear. These are the most serious trials. We're talking about murder trials or serious sexual assaults or crimes against children. It's not uncommon during these trials to have direct first-hand evidence from people who have been affected by the offence. This can also be emotional and very powerful evidence.
On top of that, jurors are often confronted with exhibits and other types of evidence that can leave lasting impressions. We're talking about things like autopsy photos or medical records or 911 phone calls, which can be some of the most chilling evidence hearing the crime unfolding as it's happening. Those are things that can stay with jurors and all participants in the system long after they leave the courtroom.
Jurors aren't selected for their ability handle potentially traumatic evidence. Is that fair to say?
We know very little about the people that we choose to be on juries. We do know they have never done it before. These are people who are not lawyers and will likely be hearing this type of evidence for the first time. And you can't talk about what you see, except with the other jurors. That means when you go home at night, you can't talk to your spouse. You can't talk to your family about what you've seen. You can't lean on other supports in the community that you may have.
When they are making one of the biggest decisions they will ever make in their lives — if someone is guilty or innocent — they are sequestered, even cut off from the comforts of home. That makes for a difficult experience for jurors. It's a very good thing Ontario launched a program to provide services for jurors to deal with mental health issues with no out-of-pocket expense, and it's a very good thing on a federal level the justice committee will examine this issue across Canada.
In every other part of our life, we are told to talk with the people we care for and trust the most about the trauma we face, yet we do the opposite with jurors.
It's a criminal offence for jurors to talk about what happens in a deliberating room. Not only do we tell them not to talk about it, we tell them that if they do, they can be guilty of a criminal offence. Part of the problem is that we don't talk about these issues. It would be good to see the justice community expand their study. It's not just jurors in the courtroom. There are judges, crown counsel, defence counsel and civilian court staff who, on a daily basis, see this type of evidence. We defence counsel are particularly bad about talking about our feelings and how what happens in court can affect us.
How have traumatic trials affected you?
This summer, I had a stretch of six back-to-back sexual assault trials which was very, very difficult. Sex assault trials are for defence counsel some of the most difficult trials. We have a job to advocate for our clients, to make sure the Crown has proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and to ask hard questions of witnesses. But we're also human and we have human emotions. When we are confronted with someone on the witness stand who is emotional who is relaying very serious allegations that they say they have suffered, it's hard to put aside normal human feelings.
During this course of six trials, I was at home and I was feeling depressed and anxious and moody. Everything else in my life was going fine. It took me a while to realize it may be because I was doing these difficult trials. The fact that wasn't the first thing that came in to my mind when I was feeling the way I was feeling illustrates the problem. It's good for all participants in the justice system that we can have these conversations more.
Defence counsel, crown counsel, law students don't receive any special training on this either. We're trained how to handle people's money, how to follow court rules. The ethical situations we are often confronted with are more like what do you do if you client brings the murder weapon to you. What are your obligations? But we don't get training on how to emotionally deal with these difficult cases.
When you were feeling anxious and depressed who did you talk to?
I'm lucky I have a very supportive family. My spouse has been involved in the criminal justice system. She knows quite well what's going on. Not all lawyers, especially defence lawyers who often work in small firms or on their own or in small communities away counselling services, have the same benefits I do. That's why rates of mental health issues among lawyers in Ontario are many times the average. We are seeing rates of mental health and addiction issues at 20 per cent or more of all lawyers.
How does the system need to change to help lawyers and the other people who work in it?
The first thing is to have conversations like this one. It's difficult for lawyers to ask for help. The law society does provide some assistance but they are also the organization that polices the competence of the lawyers it regulates. So, seeking help for mental health issues might open up a conversation about your overall competence. The last couple of years, the law society has gotten better about decoupling those aspects.
We need to make real services available. Everyone in the province should be able to receive quality and accessible mental health services. Defence lawyers are small business owners. Every case we turn away to take care of our own mental health is an hour that we are not making money to put food on the table. Just like we made sure that there are not out-of-pocket expenses for jurors who need mental health services, we should make sure that's true for everyone involved in the court process.