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“I couldn’t get the details of the case out of my head”

“I couldn’t get the details of the case out of my head”


Health Wellbeing 


“I couldn’t get the details of the case out of my head” – Tim Marsh, Chief Counsel for Victorian Legal Aid, on the impact of vicarious trauma.

“The real impact didn't hit me until after he was sentenced. I couldn't get the details of the case out of my head. Phrases and images ran on a loop day and night. I was distant from my kids and snappy with my colleagues and friends. I stopped eating and slept poorly. I felt irrationally angry all the time.” 

Tim Marsh had been practising in criminal law for more than 15 years at the time he realised that the emotional toll of a particular case was becoming a real danger to his wellbeing.

Tim wrote openly in the Sydney Morning Herald at the end of last year that 2014 had been a difficult year for him. He was muddling through life and family responsibilities after a recent divorce and had taken on a case where the accused, also recently divorced, had murdered his children who were aged roughly the same age has his. The “emotional content was obvious and raw” and struck a chord. Throwing himself into the case he stated that he “was well on way to an emotional crisis before it occurred to [him] that [he] was suffering from depression and needed to seek help.”

Tim stated that “his experience is far from unique”.  He noted one study in particular that identified that lawyers working with traumatised clients suffered more vicarious trauma effects, depression, stress and adverse beliefs about the safety of themselves and others than lawyers who didn’t work with traumatised clients.

So when most lawyers live and breathe their cases, it is obvious that vicarious trauma is a real danger.  Many are exposed to emotionally disturbing information on a daily basis which makes the threat of vicarious trauma an occupational hazard that often cannot be avoided. So faced with serious consequences, how can you minimise the effects of vicarious trauma on yourself, your staff and ultimately your business?

Tim discusses that fortunately for him, Victorian Legal Aid had a comprehensive employee assistance program and his experience helped inform the development of a more comprehensive mental well-being program focusing on building resilience, peer support and crisis avoidance rather than relying on crisis management after the fact.

Tim wrote that despite his struggles, he “remains fundamentally attracted to this work”. He stated that the “challenge for many of us is to try to find the stable distance that allows us to experience the empathy and connection which informs good advocacy, but keeps us from getting drawn in and consumed by the darkness of the subject matter and the ongoing trauma of our clients lives.  It has never been an easy balance to find.”

Tim is one of the panellists who will be exploring this important topic at our Lunch with the experts - managing vicarious trauma event on Monday, 18 June. 

Tim will join:

• The Honourable Bernard Teague AO, former Supreme Court judge and Chair of the Board of Directors of The Wellbeing and the Law Foundation

• Her Honour Coroner Caitlin English, Coroners Court of Victoria and

• Carly Schrever, Lawyer, psychologist and Judicial Wellbeing Project Advisory from the Judicial College of Victoria

Our speakers will share stories and provide attendees with the tools to assist them to manage the effects and minimise the risks of vicarious trauma – individually, professionally and organisationally.

Click here for more information and to register your attendance.

And remember that LIV members can access up to three hours of counselling per issue per year via the LIV Member Employee Assistance Program on1300 687 327 to help deal with personal and professional challenges that interfere with  work performance and/or personal life. 


Content first published in the Sydney Morning Herald article 'The emotion toll of defending a child killer" - 3 October 2017. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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