Justice, at what cost? Exploring the Lived Experiences of Female Crown Prosecutors Working with Sexual Violence Trauma in New Zealand’s Criminal Law
The criminal justice system (CJS) is undeniably a trauma-permeated environment as it functions to oversee the pursuit of justice in criminal cases that capture the darkest sides of humanity. However, little attention has been paid to the impacts of this trauma exposure on legal professionals. In New Zealand (NZ), Crown prosecutors (CPs) play a unique role in the CJS, working predominantly with serious violence and sexual violence offences. This role therefore comes with distinct responsibilities and stressors, as well as continuous occupational exposure to traumatic material. However, CPs have been largely neglected from vicarious trauma (VT) research. Female CPs who work predominantly with sexual violence trauma are arguably at an increased risk of developing adverse psychological consequences, as preliminary empirical evidence has indicated that sexual violence trauma has a particularly profound impact on legal professionals, and that female professionals may have a greater susceptibility to the development of VT than males; yet no research to date has focused on female CPs. The current study seeks to qualitatively explore the lived experiences of six female CPs working with sexual trauma in the NZ CJS. Data was analyzed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Three themes were developed from the data: Navigating the Emotional and Legal Aspects of the Role Without a Compass, The Added Impacts of Working with Sexual Trauma, and Factors Influencing Wellbeing and Help Seeking. These themes highlighted that female CPs experience significant psychological impacts due to role-specific occupational stressors and exposure to traumatic material. Working with sexual trauma had an added impact for female CPs and was found to exacerbate the existing difficulties and consequences of working with traumatic material more broadly. Further a range of individual, professional and organizational factors functioned to either alleviate or exacerbate these stressors and impacts, with the most salient exacerbator being the lack of effective organizational support. These findings contribute to the small amount of extant research on legal professionals’ wellbeing. Legal policy and practice must recognise the specific impacts of working in the criminal law and appropriately respond to this. Effective policy and practice that addresses the unique experiences of female CPs who work with sexual trauma is urgently required, to protect their psychological wellbeing from the gendered and occupational risks they experience in the CP role.