Judicial Bullying: a (brief) Beginner’s Guide

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I have been coaching new lawyers for many years now, either in group workshops, or privately as an individual, and the one conversation that I can always count on having is the conversation about judicial bullying. Whilst not every new lawyer has experienced judicial bullying, most have, and the ones that have not experienced it directly have seen it happen to colleagues and live in fear of it happening to them.

Alarmingly, those that report having been bullied by judicial officers, describe their experience in terms that are almost identical to how victims of verbal and psychological violence in a domestic setting describe their experience. For instance, they talk of being frozen in the moment, unable to respond for fear of exacerbating the bullying, being unable to flee (as a practitioner cannot leave the Bar table without permission) and feeling sick to their stomach, distressed, and sometimes unspeakably angry, but at the same time feeling completely unable to defend themselves adequately due to the power imbalance between them and the judicial officer. They speak of being so thoroughly humiliated that they have sometimes resorted to taking days off after the event. They speak of having a sleepless night or two where they mentally run through everything they have done – should I have said this? Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. They think if they can identify what it is they have done to deserve the bullying, they can make sure they don’t do it again and they will therefore not be bullied in the future. Usually they then speak to me of plans they have come up with to try and stave off the next bullying attack. Finally, they ask me hopefully if I have any tips for them. I never enjoy the look of fear and disappointment that crosses their faces when I advise that actually there is nothing they can do to stave off the next attack. Absolutely nothing.

Relying on the lived experience of new lawyers that confide in me, judicial bullying often includes (but is not limited to):
– Shouting at them;
– Deliberately saying things to embarrass or humiliate them;
– Asking them to justify themselves in circumstances that are unfair;
– Calling them names;
– Calling into question their professionalism in circumstances that are unfair;
– Accusing them of incompetence in circumstances that are unfair;
– Using various facial expressions to demean or intimidate them;
– Setting unrealistic time frames;
– Making them work through lunch breaks;
– Refusing to give them time to formulate an argument or response in circumstances where it is unfair to do so.

Apart from being obviously degrading and damaging to lawyers, judicial bullying can be disruptive to the court process itself (it can sometimes take an awful long time to pontificate), and it can also be damaging to lawyer/client relations. The client is unlikely to be able to objectively assess the judicial officer’s words or looks and can sometimes take their words, for instance, as statements of fact from a higher authority. The client then leaves court feeling that the lawyer has not done their job properly or has otherwise failed them and that, therefore, they have not had a fair hearing. Likewise, other lay people sitting in the body of the court would be forgiven for watching a judicial bully in full flight and wondering whether it is even possible for justice to be done in such a chaotic courtroom.

Of course, we are not talking here about justifiable complaints made by judicial officers. I have never had a new lawyer complain about a justifiable complaint made with grace and tact. I have received many complaints about judicial officers using the inexperience of a new lawyer as an excuse to vent some of their own inner stresses.

And this is where it gets interesting. I think we can all agree that psychologically healthy people do not bully others. The same goes for judicial officers. Psychologically healthy judicial officers do not bully others. If they do feel that the advocate has not performed to their expectations, they may say so tactfully and gracefully. Healthy judicial officers do not resort to name-calling, shouting, or facial expressions designed to humiliate or intimidate the advocate. Judicial bullying, seen in this context, stems from a mental health crisis in the judiciary which impacts, in turn, on the wider profession and the community as a whole.

So what is to be done? How do we make judges healthy so we can work in a healthy workplace?

Happily, this question has already been asked and answered in part by the Judicial College of Victoria who recently launched Australia’s first online wellness resource for judicial officers aimed at assisting “judicial officers to respond optimally to stress in themselves and others.” http://www.judicialcollege.vic.edu.au/judicial-wellbeing. Naturally, the idea behind the resource is to promote wellness among judicial officers who are renowned for suffering from stress, anxiety and even vicarious trauma associated with their unrelenting work schedules and the nature of the proceedings that play out before them.

At the same time, the government is also taking steps to bring about some much needed accountability. In 2015 the Andrews Labor Government announced that they would establish a new commission to investigate complaints into the conduct of judicial officers in Victoria. The commission will not only be able to investigate complaints, it will also have a process for especially serious cases whereby it can refer judicial officers to a special panel with coercive powers. In some circumstances the panel could recommend removal from office. The Judicial Commission of Victoria Act 2016 comes into operation 1 July 2017. Under s5 and s6 of this Act an individual or, a professional body on the individual’s behalf can make a complaint into the conduct or capacity of a judicial officer or a non-judicial member of VCAT. This is important, as many individuals may be reluctant to report poor judicial behaviour if it may mean jeopardising their career. The Heads of Jurisdiction, the AG and the IBAC can also make referrals. The Act provides the commission with coercive powers. Judicial officers can be made to produce documents, appear at hearings, undergo a medical procedure and the Commission even has the power to issue search warrants.

Unfortunately, the legislation does not identify what type of conduct is reportable. Likewise, it does not refer specifically to judicial bullying and it does not provide a definition of it. For a long time conversations about judicial bullying have been complicated by the lack of any universally accepted definition of what judicial bullying is. We do, however, currently have two definitions of ‘workplace bullying’ within the legal profession that we can draw from. For instance, under Rule 123(c) of the Legal Profession Uniform Conduct (Barristers) Rules 2015 – a barrister must not in the course of practice, engage in conduct which constitutes workplace bullying defined as: “unreasonable behaviour that could reasonably be expected to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, isolate, alienate, or cause serious offence to a person working in a workplace”. The Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitor’s Conduct Rules 2015 has a similar provision but its definition of workplace bullying is, arguably, broader. It defines bullying, as “bullying that is unlawful under the applicable state or territory anti discrimination or human rights legislation If no legislative definition exists, it is conduct within the definition relied upon by the Australian Human Rights Commission to mean workplace bullying. In general terms in includes the repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that could be expected to intimated, offend, degrade or humiliate.”

Putting definitions aside, the twin approach of assisting judicial officers to be psychologically healthy as well as making them potentially accountable for their stress-related behaviours has to be a recipe for success.

While we are patiently waiting for the effects of these latest innovations in the legal landscape to trickle down here are some tips to assist the new lawyer to manage their experience of judicial bullying.

• Place the behaviour in context. It helps to understand judicial bullying as a reflection of the psychological status of the judicial officer, rather than being attributable to something you have done or haven’t done.
• Don’t show fear. Be firm with the judicial officer, particular if they are resorting to name-calling, shouting, or accusations of unprofessional conduct. You are entitled to defend yourself. You might say for example: “Your Honour’s accusations are unfair. They are unfair because…”. It is not a sign of impertinence to defend yourself against unfair statements.
• If you have made a mistake and the judicial officer has taken delight into causing you to feel even more humiliation about it than you already do, please go easy on yourself. The judicial officer is suffering from what the writer calls SSMS, or, Sudden Short Memory Syndrome, where they suddenly cannot recall any of their early career mistakes and hold all lawyers to the same standard whether the lawyer has been admitted to practice for one week or twenty years. You don’t have to allow their SSMS to bring you down.
• De-brief with colleagues. It always helps to talk about the experience and your colleagues will no doubt have stories of their own to share.
• Do not go over and over the incident in your mind and wonder what you could have done to change it. You are never responsible for the behaviour of a judicial officer. Never!
• If it is a very serious case of judicial bullying, report the matter to the LIV or Vic Bar (whichever is your professional association) – they are able to take the matter on your behalf to the Heads of Jurisdiction.
• After work, go home and be extra kind to yourself. You have just been through an ordeal. Don’t just sweep it under the carpet. Process it by talking, writing or meditating but at the same time tell yourself quite explicitly that you are going to look after yourself now as you have been treated poorly and you deserve better.

Good luck!