Major new research by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and its Global Judicial Integrity Network, shows a strong link, worldwide, between judicial well-being and judicial integrity.
Compilers of the report set it against the backdrop of the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct. These principles emphasised that a judge should have ‘sufficient time to permit the maintenance of physical and mental well-being’, and, added the writers of the report, ‘The stress of fulfilling judicial duties is increasingly being recognised.’
That stress, and the need to respond to it, was obvious from the input received. Of the 758 judges who completed the research form, almost all – some 97% – said they believed more attention should be paid to the importance of promoting judicial well-being. And well over 90% said that their judicial workload brought them stress sometimes, frequently or always.
Asked about their colleagues who might be experiencing stress or anxiety, 89% said they knew of such cases, but almost 70% said they felt that talking about mental health or stress ‘was taboo when it comes to members of the judiciary’.
The most commonly-reported results of this lack of well-being were that it led to overall bad performance, to procedural errors and errors in judgment and that it caused a lack of concentration and diminished cognitive abilities.
Other associated problems included a lack of empathy, a tendency to be biased or to resort to stereotyping, and judgments that weren’t fully researched, or that were hastily written. It also led to impatience, irritability interpersonal problems – and to anger.
So great was the pressure that even when training was offered, some judges were hesitant to accept it, saying it could add even further to their workload and their sense of never being able to catch up.
The survey involved judges from judiciaries around the world, with eight percent of the total participants coming from Africa. But despite the size and reach of the global responses, there was little difference between the responses based on gender, age and geographical region.
Across the board, the first finding was that more than 75% of survey participants felt they didn’t have enough time to maintain ‘optimal physical and mental well-being’.
An overwhelming majority felt that their judicial work brought them sometimes, frequently or even always, feelings of fulfilment, happiness and satisfaction. But the negative feelings were just as strong.
About 75% of participants said that their judicial work ‘sometimes, frequently or always’ contributed to or created in them a physical exhaustion. Other feelings reported were emotional exhaustion (72%), anxiety (63%), and even sadness (54%).
What contributed to this stress, sadness and anxiety? Without any doubt, the heavy judicial workload lay behind most of the problem. But inadequate resources, institutional systems and structures – along with Covid 19 – all played their part in stress creation.
Quantity over quality
Another serious problem that led to a lack of well-being, was increasing demands and pressure from management to complete more cases and to ‘prioritise quantity over quality’. And the vast majority of answers dealt in some way with excessive workloads, growing backlogs and the inability to control the volume of work.
All of this left judges with a feeling that they were always behind with their work, that their long out-of-office working hours weren’t recognised and that they were unable to maintain a balance between their work and the rest of their lives.
As one anonymous respondent put it, ‘We have to deal with many cases within the day and there is not enough time after work for studying and writing. All work of decision-making is done at home, with the result that no time is left for personal well-being and family.’
More than half of the survey participants said that their judiciary did not offer ‘any form of support’ to promote the well-being of judges. There was a kind of ‘institutional blindness’ to the impact of excessive workloads and the resulting constant pressure on judges, they said.
What about the impact of Covid? Nearly half of those who participated said that their mental well-being had deteriorated as a result of the pandemic. This was because of the changes that had to be made to the usual way of living and working. In particular, it was because of the lack of personal contacts with colleagues and court users, because of health issues or fear of health issues, because of the adjustment that had to be made to new technologies, the growing backlog of cases, the longer working hours.
But on the other hand, many found their physical or mental well-being had actually improved during the pandemic. This group appreciated the flexible working hours, the modernised work systems and processes, the improved work efficiency because of few interruptions. This group referred to the better time management that was possible, to fewer interruptions, to the fact that there was more time to concentrate and catch up on paperwork and writing judgments or to the time saved by not having to commute to work. Some even felt personally safer while working remotely. They also commented on the fact that there was more time for physical exercise and a better work-life balance.
What of the benefits experienced during Covid could be maintained after the pandemic? Many appreciated the flexibility that some of the pandemic-related measures had created, and the fact that the pandemic forced judiciaries to reconsider the systems in place, allowing for mechanisms and systems to be introduced that were significantly more efficient and effective and so could be maintained in the future.
Though they understood the importance of in-person court sessions, many felt it would be helpful if they could work remotely at least some of the time, to catch up with administrative matters, applications and judgment writing.
‘A hybrid model of both in-person and remote work was considered by many participants as a means to improve time management and allow more opportunities for well-being activities, such as exercising, mindfulness or family time.’
Most participants believe that when the well-being of judges isn’t attended to, it creates a knock-on effect, with limitations on efficiency as well as impacting on the quality of decisions and judgments, public trust, and confidence in the judiciary, among other problems.
Many felt that if judges weren’t functioning optimally, both physically and mentally, it would be unlikely ‘that they will be able to perform in an ideal manner and that their relationships with colleagues, court users and others will be optimal.’
What help in relation to wellness would participants like in the future? Many said they were more interested in practical help and tips than in theory. But, as some noted, they aren’t getting anything at the moment, and they would thus welcome any form of support.
For many, the first step should be to acknowledge the problem and raise awareness about the negative impact of stress and mental health issues on judicial functioning. This would help remove stigma and stereotypes. Many emphasised the importance of an enabling work environment and a positive working culture, and that ‘when people work with peace and happiness, they can concentrate better and achieve better performance.’
Judicial leadership was also seen as crucial in promoting judicial well-being, and participants said that judicial leaders should address the topic and tackle existing taboos on the subject, as well as showing compassion, listening and being committed to supporting and guiding their staff. Judicial institutions, they said, needed to give employees the same care that is given to court users.
Some participants also emphasised the need for psychological support to maintain or improve mental well-being, but added that the specialists involved should be experts on the specific stressors linked to judicial functions.