Is there a crisis among circuit judges?
By Graham Coy
Following the results of the 2020 UK Judicial Attitudes Survey, Graham Coy asks whether we need to do more to make our judges feel valued
At first sight, the idea of reading the 90-page 2020 UK Judicial Attitudes Survey does not set the pulse racing or the heart beating faster. It should.
It provides an invaluable insight into what judges at all levels, including circuit judges, think on a whole range of issues and all of us as lawyers will benefit from studying its conclusions – as will the public, the media and the government.
This is the third survey of its kind – the previous two being undertaken in 2014 and 2016. It was conducted independently by the Judicial Institute of University College London.
A phenomenal 99.6 per cent of court judges in England and Wales took part and 98 per cent of UK tribunal judges. The survey records that, "with close to 100 per cent participation over six years, the report provides a reliable assessment of how, if at all, judicial attitudes to their working lives may have changed."
There are currently over 600 circuit judges and 400 district judges in England and Wales. Circuit judges sit in criminal and civil courts and deal with family cases as well as other civil disputes. The Lord Chief Justice describes their role as "fulfilling, stressful and harrowing."
It should go without saying that a well-functioning system of justice is vital to a working democracy. Highly committed, extremely self-motivated and experienced; in many ways, they are, with district judges, the backbone of day-to-day justice in this country.
The survey found that 96 per cent felt that they were providing an important service to society and had a deep commitment to their role, which the report concludes as evidence of a deep underlying strength of the judiciary across all posts.
Despite this, 56 per cent of participating judges said their working conditions were worse than two years ago. 42 per cent had real concerns about their personal safety in court, with the majority rating buildings maintenance as "poor." The morale of court staff was also said to be poor.
The majority of circuit judges had been earning more, or substantially more, before they took up their posts. 64 per cent felt their pay and pension benefits did not adequately reflect the work they did. Yet, 84 per cent were satisfied with the challenge of their job and 64 per cent would encourage others to apply to become a judge.
Against this background, it is enormously concerning to read that 69 per cent of judges felt less respected by society than they were five years ago. Few judges felt valued by government (9 per cent) or by the media (12 per cent) and no judges reported feeling greatly valued by either of the foregoing.
It is hardly surprising, then, that 40 per cent said they were intending to retire early within the next five years.
Their answers paint a picture of a group of dedicated, committed and highly professional men and women, undertaking a vital role in our justice system, who feel underpaid and frustrated by worsening morale among their staff.
All this alongside the decreasing number of support staff, suffering from low morale themselves, as well as having poor physical working conditions, increasing workloads, and not feeling respected by those they serve.
While the media can be quick to criticise, judges are unable and unwilling to fight back – they should note that 87 per cent of judges feel valued by parties in cases who appear before them.
The survey does present contradictions, concerns and signs for encouragement. What we cannot do is ignore its starkest conclusions.
While preserving a degree of objectivity and recognising that, like all of us, judges are not infallible, government, media and all of us need to show respect for the enormously difficult and demanding task which judges undertake every working day of the year, applaud their commitment and address their concerns. If we don’t, our justice and our democracy will start to crumble.
Graham Coy is a family law partner at Wilsons Solicitors wilsonsllp.com