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Suicide Prevention: what can I do?

Revised 6th May 2020

This blog talks about suicide. If you are affected by any of the material discussed, please use the contacts in the contacts page to discuss how you are feeling or contact a person you feel comfortable talking to. The Samaritans are always open and are always waiting for your call. You do not have to be suicidal to call them and you are invited to do so on 116 123. Talking about how you feel will help.

I crammed myself and the 3 lever arch files making up the court bundle into the small booth provided for prisoners and their legal representatives to hold a conference in the cells at the police station which serves the Family Court. My client sat in the chair opposite me, the two of us separated by thick glass.

My client, a convicted paedophile, on remand for alleged breaches (later proven) of his Sexual Offenders Prevention Order, looked ashen-faced as I told him devastating news about his ex-partner conceding the making of Final Care and Placement Orders, meaning their baby daughter would now be placed for adoption with a plan for there to be a single goodbye contact for him and thereafter two-way letterbox contact once per year which would not include photographs. In addition, his ex-partner was now in a new relationship and implored him to stop contacting her from prison. My client told me he was on the VP wing (for the uninitiated, that is the Vulnerable Persons’ Wing of the prison). He told me he had nothing to live for: no child and now no partner, either. He told me he had attempted suicide in custody and, with little warning, made a suicide attempt in front of me. How many of us look for the panic button when we enter into conference rooms or cells with our clients? Before this incident, it was a step I had never taken. I frantically looked for the panic button and found it out in the corridor, shouting for the guards. ‘He’s going to die. I am going to stand here and watch him die’ I thought as the officers dealt with my client. Shortly after, a G4S guard came through to speak to me; they had successfully intervened with my client and would take him to the prison hospital. I said I would not see my client again and I would explain to the court what had happened. I was completely shaken by the incident and had disturbed sleep and unwelcome images dog me for the days and weeks that followed.

Not two weeks later, I faced another suicidal litigant in proceedings; a mother who had a complex mental health profile who had twice made suicide attempts during the course of proceedings. We were on day 4 of a 5-day hearing and she had given evidence for much of the day and had clearly found the experience emotionally demanding, despite the calm, compassionate and appropriate way Counsel for all parties had questioned her. I represented the child in respect of whom the Local Authority were seeking Final Care and Placement Orders with a plan for the child to be placed for adoption. It had been a long day at court and prior to taking to my car for the 90-minute drive home, I went to decompress in Costa with a coffee. After ordering my coffee, I noticed the mother was also in the coffee shop looking distressed and absorbed in her thoughts. I could see she was emotionally fragile from her presentation and from the context I was aware of. Over the next 2 hours I spent with her, we had a frank discussion about her plans to kill herself. I identified reasons why she would not want to do that including the impact not only on her young daughter who was subject to these proceedings but also on her older children with whom she had a relationship. I stayed with her until she was able to reassure me she would not do anything that evening. I stayed with her until she got her bus. I made sure her mental health practitioner was informed as well as the allocated social worker so plans could be made to safeguard her that evening. Police and ambulance staff went to her home and made sure she was safe. The next day she prepared a statement to say she had felt suicidal but thought about what I had said to her and decided not to go through with it. Looking back, there are things I could have done differently but I did the best I could at the time with the skills I had. I was lucky I got it right with that particular woman. The child in that case was eventually placed for adoption and I heard some months later that the mother had attended an adoption open day in the hope of adopting her own child. It was heart-breaking.

Counsel at the Family Bar are not the only ones affected by suicidal clients; Barristers at the Criminal Bar also have frequent contact with those with complex mental health profiles; the disenfranchised; those who are the most vulnerable members of our society; those facing loss of their liberty and most of whom are likely to have experienced huge personal hardship as a result of being involved in the criminal justice system.

The Judiciary also have to deal with those litigants reported to be suicidal and there are, of course, the rather more public examples of litigants making moves to self-harm or attempt suicide in the court arena.

The stress of litigation affects all litigants, regardless of background or pre-existing mental health conditions. All of us, across all of the disciplines, are exposed to potentially suicidal litigants on a regular basis.

Stresses at the Bar can be overwhelming, especially when the equilibrium we manage to manufacture is knocked off by some event at work or at home. Many of us will be able to recall occasions when we have felt overwhelmed with stress or had colleagues who have expressed such feelings and even feelings of suicide or self-harm.

Suicide prevention and how to deal with suicidal people is a matter which might affect any one of us. How should we deal with those situations? I don’t know. I have twice done the best that I can in situations I was not equipped for. I dare say I may have cause to respond to threats of suicide, attempts at suicide and expressions of suicidal ideation again in the future. Suicide is one of the most preventable deaths and the impact that suicide has on those left behind is immeasurable and stays with them forever. Should we be receiving training for this? I believe we should.

When considering whether there ought to be training, I decided to contact my colleagues at Coram Chambers, a specialist Family set in London, to collect any other anecdotal evidence of colleagues facing suicidal litigants and to see whether there was an appetite for training. Within minutes of sending that email, I had a flurry of responses, most of which included experiences of managing suicidal clients and all of which endorsed the call for training. It was suggested that such training should extend to the Judiciary and to our solicitor colleagues, a suggestion I would endorse.

This is an invitation to the Bar Council to organise training and put together a useful resource to equip the Bar with the essential skills required to deal with suicidal litigants and the aftermath of such incidents. Let’s help safeguard those involved in the Justice system and let’s equip the Bar so it can respond appropriately and look after itself.

Amanda Bewley, a family practitioner at Coram Chambers in London, considers the frequency of the Bar’s interaction with suicidal litigants and colleagues, and issues a call to action for the Bar Council. 

 

We absolutely agree that training in this area could be very useful so we’re looking at identifying external providers e.g. the Samaritans to try to identify suitable training to recommend for the Bar. The Wellbeing at the Bar team also plan on developing a quick guide on good practice – what to do in circumstances when someone talks about suicide. Look out for this new resource in the next few months. In the meantime, we’re keen to remind members of the Bar (and their staff) that if you are struggling with issues associated with suicide, including the circumstances outlined by Amanda do access the Helpline we provide T: 0800 169 2040 (see https://www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/assistance-programme/) or speak to someone at LawCare – these helplines are set up for this reason.