Lord Chief Justice urges public to ‘remember judges are human’ as he reveals sad impact of online threats
Some need counselling over ‘shocking’ case content
Paid a six-figure salary to watch advocates try to impress you seems like a decent job. However, the head of the judiciary of England and Wales has revealed the sad impact online abuse and sensitive cases is having on the profession.
Lord Burnett has revealed that, while he doesn’t believe judges should be free from criticism, the abuse they face is getting out of hand. Judges, unfortunately, “face a torrent of personal abuse for decisions they have made — increasingly online and in social media”. He also said there is “a growing number of cases where judges are threatened and physically abused”, this comment coming days after a litigant was sentenced to 20 weeks for rugby tackling a judge to the floor outside court.
On this abuse, Burnett, who has been the Lord Chief Justice for just two months, continued:
“Some is calculated to intimidate judges individually or collectively. Such abuse is capable of undermining the rule of law. Judicial independence and impartiality is at the heart of the rule of law.”
Public hate and the potential effect this has on the administration of justice has been brought to the fore since the Brexit legal challenge which, fun fact, was in the Supreme Court exactly a year ago today. Judges at almost every stage of the hearing were minded to condemn abuse of those involved, directed at lawyers and claimants alike. High Court judges hearing the case were then labelled ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’ by the press when they handed down their pro-claimant judgment.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that research from February has revealed judges feel less valued by society than they did two years ago. Less than half (43%) feel valued by the public; the numbers drop staggeringly to 3% and 2% when considering how valued they feel by the media and the government respectively.
This, clearly, has had an impact on the mood among judges, which has been described as poor in various Lord Chief Justice reports. Another factor causing this low morale — which has been cited as a reason for the High Court’s failure to fully staff its benches — is the sometimes harrowing cases judges have to try.
Burnett said “there is some pretty shocking material that comes across our desks which we have to take into account to be able to determine the cases before us”, adding:
“Our judges work incredibly hard making important, often life-changing decisions, day in, day out, in difficult circumstances.”
Indeed, the plight faced by judges when dealing with these is becoming more public.
Mr Justice Dingemans broke down in tears at Bristol Crown Court when sentencing Nathan Matthews to at least 33 years in prison for the murder of his stepsister, Becky Watts. Not long after, Burnett’s predecessor, Lord Thomas, spoke out about harrowing sexual offence cases and the emotional toll that they can have on judges. He said:
“Few people have any idea of the sheer depravity to which people can sink and a judge often has material in front of him which cannot but distress people.”
Burnett said judges have been given counselling to help deal with this. “[W]e are making professional support available to judges who feel that it would assist them,” he explained. “Judges are very self-contained individuals but no one is invulnerable to the effects and materials that they see in the course of their professional lives.”
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