Suicide prevention and how to deal with suicidal people is a matter which might affect any one of us. Amanda Bewley, a family practitioner here at Coram Chambers shares her story and issues a call to action for the Bar Council. She recently wrote the below article for Wellbeing at the Bar.
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 and a narrow ledge under which, it transpired, a prisoner could conceal whatever it was they had in their hands.
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 his ex-partner was conceding the making of Final Care and Placement Orders which meant their baby daughter would now be placed for adoption with the 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 shoved his hands into his pockets. I asked him how he had done that, and he didn’t answer me. I asked him whether there was anything in his pockets now. He shifted in his seat, clearly moving his hands within his pockets and refused to answer my question, avoiding eye contact with me. ‘He’s got a sharp’, I thought over and again. ‘Have you got something in your pocket?’ I asked, a sense of urgency taking over and my heart beginning to pick up pace. He quickly took his hands out of his pockets and appeared to be turning something over in them beneath the table. I couldn’t see what it was. ‘I am going to have to call the guards if you don’t show me your hands’ I said. With one swift movement, he took what appeared to be a chord removed from the hooded top he was wearing and pulled it impossibly tight, tying it off, around his neck. He folded his arms and put his head down. 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. ‘He’s tied a ligature,’ I shouted as guards mobilised, ‘bring ligature cutters!’ By the time the guards reached my client, he was slumped over, a puce colour with saliva streaming from his mouth and down his chin. ‘He’s going to die. I am going to stand here and watch him die’ I thought as the officers struggled to remove the ligature with the cutters, saying to my client firmly, ‘help us out here, fella. Come on.’ It looked hopeless from where I was standing and, with the thought in my mind that I did not want to watch someone die, I stepped back into the corridor, only able to hear the struggle but not witness it. Shortly after, a G4S guard came through to speak to me. They would take my client to the prison hospital. They had removed the ligature. 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 of my client’s beetroot face 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 unsuccessful attempts on her life during the course of proceedings, one of which had landed her in a coma for a number of days. 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 how her plan was to go home from court that evening and take an amount of lithium she had been stockpiling 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 removed her store of lithium 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 enact 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. 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.