Teaching Bar students to become competent barristers is a huge responsibility. It goes far beyond the skills and knowledge subjects that all good Bar Providers deliver. At the ICCA, we set out to introduce competences that we hope will prepare students fully for what lies ahead. At the same time, we are ever mindful of student wellbeing. We provide lectures, online resources, a 24/7 helpline, and even a relaxation yoga class in Mental Health Awareness Week.
In September this year, we delivered a new introductory session on managing time, stress and anxiety. These are issues that we know are problematic for students who are trying to juggle studying at the same time as working, caring for others and filling their CVs with valuable work experience before the inevitable pupillage frenzy.
Our practical skills course introduces the concept of identifying vulnerability and vulnerable witness handling. We recognise that this is a subtly different skill from the more traditional examinations-in-chief and cross-examinations upon which students are examined. But at the same time, we know that these are essential competences regardless of what field of practice students pursue.
In October and November, we added two compulsory Dean’s lectures to the Bar Course timetable. The first was in collaboration with HH Peter Rook KC, Vice-Chair of the Parole Board, who, during his judicial career at the Old Bailey, pioneered an adapted approach for the cross-examination of children and vulnerable witnesses in the criminal justice system.
This lecture drew parallels between HH Rook’s own mea culpa regarding his previous treatment of the vulnerable in court and the flaws of previous generations. Students were walked through the last three decades of an increasing awareness of the unfairness in adapting the process to enable the vulnerable to participate fully in their own experiences of the criminal justice system.
Students heard that witnesses are no longer to be bludgeoned by aggressive and oppressive questioning, and that the way we expect children and vulnerable adults to be treated today was almost inconceivable half a generation ago. This lecture helped students understand how well the Bar has done to shift its approach over the last few decades and how they, as young advocates might identify vulnerability at an early stage and treat witnesses more equitably to engender a fairer system.
In November, ICCA students learned about developing a trauma-informed practice from psychologist, Wendy Showell-Nicholas who works closely with barristers suffering burn out and vicarious trauma as a direct result of their workloads and often harrowing subject matter. Students were told that, whilst having a trauma-informed practice was still a relatively new concept, it was nevertheless a crucial ethical competency for them as advocates. The lecture focussed on helping students develop an awareness of trauma in their clients and in themselves. Students were introduced to the types of behaviour that might be exhibited by a traumatised client; methods of identifying trauma and the skills they would need to develop a trauma-informed practice.
Our students were urged to embrace strategies to minimise the risk to themselves of vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress. It is a syndrome seen so often at the Bar when practitioners find themselves without the tools to tend to their own wellbeing. Barristers can become desensitised, prone to procrastination and withdrawn from friends and family. These are red flags. We are only fit to practise if we are not incapacitated due to a physical or mental condition. Hopefully, the younger generation will thrive, having been armed with the knowledge and skills to practise self-care.
Lynda Gibbs KC is a barrister and the Dean at The Inns of Court College of Advocacy. She is the Wellbeing lead at the Council of the Inns of Court (COIC).