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Judicial bullying affects aspiring barristers too

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Taboo subject dissected by a BPTC graduate

If you are being bullied at your workplace you have a few options. You can talk to the bully directly, approach your line manager, speak to HR, contact ACAS or even bring a claim for constructive dismissal. However, what do you do when you are being bullied by a judge who, though technically not your boss, is the person with the highest authority in the (court)room, which you consider your workplace? Who do you speak to and why does it matter?

The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) has been responsible for handling complaints against the judiciary since taking over from its predecessor, the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC), in October 2013.

JCIO publishes annual reports as well as updates about current investigations. Despite this, the procedure remains vastly concealed. The public can read, for example, that a matter was considered and it did not amount to misconduct, but we do not know who investigated the conduct, what was looked at and even if the complaint was made by a litigant or a legal professional.

According to statistics from the annual reports published by the JCIO, only a fraction of complaints made against judges are investigated. The JCIO suggests this is because case management and judicial decisions are complained about often, topics not within the JCIO’s remit.

If this is true, this would imply that most of the complaints are made by litigants rather than legal professionals. So why are legal professionals not complaining if they are being bullied?

Unfortunately, it’s not the case that people aren’t complaining about judicial bullying because it doesn’t exist.

A 12 College Place barrister, Mary Aspinall-Miles, opened Pandora’s Box on judicial bullying last month in a series of tweets which has led to lawyers coming forward with their gruelling experiences. Many admitted to not reporting due to fears of stunted career progression and feeling ‘paralysed’ at the moment it happened.

But this is a phenomenon that transcends the practising bar, too. During a mini pupillage I watched a junior barrister being yelled at by the judge for offering to research a matter at court from her laptop. Although I experienced a lot during that mini, what I remember the clearest is not wanting to be yelled at.

During the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), many of my peers were the most unmotivated about going to advocacy classes due to the fear of being humiliated by the “judge” — now imagine that feeling of being humiliated by an actual judge in front of your client, professional client and perhaps even a jury. Although it might not put budding lawyers off their true passion permanently, it does make the profession seem rather unapproachable, even if the truth remains that the bullying judge is an exception rather than a rule.

How do we go about tackling this? Would more transparency by the JCIO help?

Possibly, but if the investigations related to Mr Justice Peter Smith have taught us anything it’s how frustrating the JCIO complaints procedure is.

Those of you who are not familiar with Mr Justice Smith should know the judge has been investigated since July 2015 after going on a rant about how British Airways allegedly lost his luggage during a case the airline was party to. This questionable behaviour and investigation did not stop him from making things worse for himself by throwing a hissy-fit over an article Lord Pannick QC wrote about him.

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The JCIO has been investigating him since July 2015, and only managed to set a disciplinary panel hearing for 30 and 31 October 2017. Then on 27 October 2017 the JCIO published the following: “Mr Justice Peter Smith retires with effect from 28th October 2017. In accordance with JCIO rules, all conduct investigations cease immediately when a judicial office holder retires, and as such investigations into Mr Justice Peter Smith cease on that date with no outcome.”

This investigation has been longstanding and those affected as well as those of us who are merely spectators have been for a resolution not a retirement. If the lack of transparency in the investigation can lead to such unruly behaviour being dropped then why would anyone bother complaining to the JCIO anyway?

JCIO aside, this past month has showed how unity against harassment is what is needed to rid the culture of silencing one’s experiences due to shame and fear. Coming forward with one’s experiences can be mortifying, however we can thank those like Aspinall-Miles and Jo Delahunty QC for speaking about a subject that has been an unspoken secret so far.

The effect of legal professionals speaking about their experiences should be applauded, not least for the support and encouragement it provides younger members, and aspiring members, of the bar. Hopefully, shedding light on these unfair experiences will generate the understanding that these matters should be taken seriously and will force the JCIO to investigate complaints of judicial bullying and publish more transparent statistics on how complaints are dealt with and where they are coming from.

And remember — younger members of the profession as well as aspiring lawyers feel more confident about the profession due to the current discussion on judicial bullying being out in the open, as it demonstrates that it is not the norm, and that the topic is receiving the attention it deserves. For an aspiring advocate there needs to be trust in the profession pursued, and the trust in the profession lives another day if the good experiences are highlighted and the bad ones are addressed. This is hopefully what the current discussion will lead to.

Adiba Bassam is a BPTC graduate and an aspiring barristers, currently working as a legal assistant at a London chambers.

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21 Comments

Anonymous

Load of tosh. Non-issue.

Anonymous

You cant get upset because a Judge “snaps” at you over a small issue. Im not saying that the lawyers reporting their experiences are lying, or that it is not important for them to be heard. Judges should treat each side neutrally. But this is a question of standards of civility, neutrality and decorum – and is best addressed by education and further training in Judges. What this is not, is bullying. Bullying in a workplace context is a completely different thing altogether.

This whole debate really distracts from and belittles the real problem of bullying and harassment between lawyers themselves, peer – to – peer.

Come to any chambers or solicitors firm and from my experience, you can both observe in others and be on the receiving end of bullying behaviour. Its a silent cultural problem that needs to stop.

I dont think it will stop. Some people’s human nature is just to flip out and be nasty / bizarre / two – faced….

Anonymous

I agree, bullying is rife in the legal profession!

Anonymous

Lawyers are, on the whole despicable, unhappy people who have little idea how to behave well and even less idea on how to live well (I am one myself) why are judges then expected to be any different?

Anonymous

Standards are slipping

Trumpenkrieg

What is this bilge I have just read? That’s 2 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. I suggest you pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as a matter of extreme urgency.

Not even the headline makes sense. How can judicial bullying affect aspiring barristers if they are merely aspiring barristers and have not yet begun exercising rights of audience?

Anonymous

Sorry to state the obvious, but SNOWFLAKE GENERATION!

Anonymous

glass jaws

Not Amused

I have had my fair share of angry judges. Only one ever crossed the line in to being rude.

But, despite your very kind offer to infantilise me, I’m not a child. I’m an adult. I don’t need your assistance or your manufactured concern.

For the last 30 years the resounding belief has been that the state can solve this ‘problem’. It can’t. It has utterly failed. Every level of ‘protection’ has turned in to a complete waste of time and resources. Every single ‘objective’, ‘independent’ or ‘there needs to be somebody they can go to’ has failed. We can’t keep endlessly adding in regulators to regulate the regulators: HR to HR the HR.

We need to start teaching children how to be adults again. University expansion has not helped.

Legion

Indeed. Furthermore, many bullies are people with personality disorders. They have no insight so it is pointless trying to cause them to change their behaviour either directly or through HR etc. Instead, recognise what they are and then decide to

a. Get out of their way and leave them; or
b. Minimise your involvement with them and work round them and do not give them a reaction. That is what they want. Remove the reaction and they will invariably give up.

Ultimately, get a grip and realise there will always be people like this in the world so create your own solution rather than expecting them to alter or other people to do something.

Dave Barrister

Spot on NA.

Judicial conduct perceived to be bullying by a mini pupil is normally just robust case management. If it steps over the line (and occasionally it does) it can be remedied by appeal. A member of Chambers did just that a few months ago in the Court of Appeal with success.

Civility is lacking in some judges in the same way it is lacking in some at the Bar. That is a facet of life and not a reason to create layers of beurocracy to divert funding from an already cash-strapped judiciary.

Thankfully the vast majority of those at the Bench and Bar are thoroughly decent.

Anonymous

If you’ve ‘only once’ had the experience of having a judge ‘cross the line’ then clearly you haven’t been on the receiving end of ‘judicial bullying.’ I, like you, practice in commercial chancery in London. It’s widely known acknowledged that these courts are unrecognisable from how they were 30 years ago (before your time and mine) when you did get shouty, angry judges. Now everything is very business-oriented, and hence consistently cordial, polite and civilised. As it should be. Given that you benefit from this atmosphere and admit that you have never suffered the problem some of your colleagues complain of, why do you want to dismiss their complaints? Why shouldn’t all judges in England be as approachable as the ones we are fortunate enough to appear before?

Not Amused

I think this argument is specious and I reject many of the things stated as truths. Fundamentally it has ignored my arguments which are:

1. I’m not a child and I don’t want to be treated as one.
2. People need to grow up and not spend their whole lives as children.
3. Civility is not going to change one way or the other with the creation of yet more regulators and yet more waste of public money.
4. We have no spare public money.
5. When we do have money, we should spend it on things we need not on invented problems such as ‘judicial bullying’.

Lord Harley of Counsel

I was appallingly bullied by a Crown Court judge who questioned my qualifications and medals.

I was then bullied by the SRA who had me struck off by preventing me attending as I cannot travel. Except to Cardiff.

Anonymous

With respect, the tutors on the BPTC are there to prepare you for practice (whether they do or not is a different debate). If you’re not up to the required standards they tell you. In my experience negative comments are never personal but rather constructive feedback.

Furthermore, if you can’t take constructive criticism from a BPTC tutor you will be in for a shock come Pupillage interviews and Pupillage itself.

Izzwizz

Judges are human. Some humans are bullies. Some judges are bullies. All bullies are inadequate human beings.

Watson Glaser Practitioner

Assumption not made

Anonymous

“During the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), many of my peers were the most unmotivated about going to advocacy classes due to the fear of being humiliated by the “judge” ”

Most BPTC students will never obtain pupillage. The tutors playing “judge” are failed former barristers. I wouldn’t draw any comparisons between BPTC and actual practise.

Anonymous

As open court has recordings for which transcripts are easily available, this is not as prevalent as people are claiming.

Try working in a private firm of solicitors where a partner has agreed a deal paying £325 – £600 fixed fee for a file that may require a hell of a lot more time spent on it. The partner receives the plaudits and those servicing the work have to deal with the cases. When those cases require a high WIP write-off which impacts on your targets/billables not being met despite you working hard and having the WIP write off held against your stats/measurement, that is when you experience bullying on a different level.

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD GENT.

Snowflakes are now getting everywhere. We all better hope those who don’t or won’t want to reduce themselves to this claptrap don’t come and play in our profession.
The world is now working on lite mode. It’s meant only for the weak and those who want all to be the same. Safe places and those who inhabit them need to be sent back to the communes and retreats from whence they came.

Happy hippie

Gosh…

I’m a law student and have recently witnessed an incident of judicial belittling and effectively bullying of an LIP. I looked up the subject to try to gauge the nature of the beast so to speak. I’m somewhat taken aback by some of the posts I’ve read..

If a person desiring judges to ‘show the respect they expect’, is treated with such derision by their peers then it’s back to the commune with glee for me! 🙂

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