Judges are often perceived as sitting in their ivory towers, immune from the normality of societal stress. However, a recent international survey portrays a different picture, with the majority of respondents speaking of “crushing workloads” writes Tania Broughton.
The report, conducted by the Global Judicial Integrity Network of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, explored links between judicial well-being and judicial integrity. The survey was conducted in late 2021, and 758 judges and other members of the judiciary from 102 countries, including 19 from Africa, participated.
Among the key findings were that 76% of the participants said they do not have sufficient time to “maintain optimal physical and mental well-being”, and 92% said their work is stressful. Talking about mental health or stress is taboo, said almost 70% of the respondents. Most said they got no support, and believed this had to change.
“Almost all survey participants believe there is not enough awareness about the importance of judicial well-being and its impact on judicial integrity and on the perception of the judiciary. The concept of judicial well-being is unheard of in many judiciaries. And even where there were well-being measures in place, they were inadequate….and stigma and stereotyping around mental health issues remained,” the report said.
The most common cause of stress among judges is cited as being heavy workloads, with a lack of resources coming in second.
One judge recorded: “There are relentless and crushing workloads with no relief offered by having chamber days to write judgments and insufficient time to research matters properly.”
“The excessive workload produces a decrease in efficiency and judicial delay, which becomes a vicious circle with respect to stress,” said another. They cited the need for psychological support to address the “general absence of work-life balance”.
The impact of Covid-19 was also high on the list of stressors. “Covid has made a lonely job even lonelier,” said one judge.
However, some respondents reported that their physical and mental well-being had improved through the modernisation of work systems and processes, flexible working hours and remote work which meant they had fewer interruptions and more time to do physical exercise.
“A blended work-from-home as well as a work-from-the-office approach, that is flexible and functional, will be welcomed,” noted one.
On the issue of judicial integrity, the survey participants explained that excessive workloads slowed them down and ultimately created further backlogs.
“Judicial stress negatively affects the efficiency of justice and the court administration, and can lead to delays in decision-making and decreased quality and timeliness of reasons. If this occurs consistently, then public trust and confidence in the judiciary may be eroded,” the report said.
One participant said it was time to “take the genie out of the bottle” and create safe spaces to discuss workplace stress, anxiety and mental health. “Ongoing mutual mentoring or peer groups would be welcome to discuss how things are going and how each person is coping,” another commented.
It was suggested that judicial management acknowledge the problem, remove stigmatisation, facilitate peer support and access to psychological support, promote better work-life balance and improve case management and workload distribution through modern technology and adequate working infrastructure.
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