Getting to the heart of the judiciary

Magistrates and judges are subject to tough emotional demands of life on the bench.

There are many stressful aspects of judicial work, especially for magistrates in the lower courts.

They handle large caseloads, often with unrepresented parties and limited time for hearing matters and making decisions. They face unrepresented litigants, see first hand some horrific acts of cruelty and violence and extensive social and personal problems experienced by many court users and have many frustrations with the limited responses available to address the needs of victims and perpetrators.

It is valuable for the Australian public to be informed about the ways judicial officers experience their work, and research at Flinders University sheds light on this important issue.

Since 1999, the Judicial Research Project led by Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu and Emerita Professor Kathy Mack has undertaken extensive national research into the work experiences of the Australian judiciary.

Using surveys, court observations and face-to-face interviews, the research gives a broad picture of the experiences of judicial work and the attitudes of judicial officers.

In their recent book Performing Judicial Authority in the Lower Courts (2017, Palgrave), judicial officers around the country gave candid interviews about their work and their emotions.

“Almost half of magistrates find their work always or often emotionally draining (compared with a third of judges) and almost half of all judicial officers experience this sometimes,” says Professor Roach Anleu.

“While only around 10 per cent of magistrates (and judges) find that difficult decisions always or often keep them awake and less than 20 per cent always or often experience concern about health, about one-third report experiencing this sometimes.”

An important antidote to work stress is job satisfaction, and there is some good news on this front, says Professor Mack.

“Overall job satisfaction is very high among judicial officers in Australia.

“Around 9 in 10 report that their work has lived up to their expectations and that their daily work is always or often varied and interesting.

“They agree (including strongly agree) that their work is a major source of satisfaction in their lives, are satisfied with the importance to society of their work, and an overwhelming majority would become magistrates or judges again, even with the benefit of hindsight.”

The expectation of detachment and dispassionate reason also places unrealistic demands on judicial officers, the researchers say.

While some emotional distance can provide protection for a judicial officer, the artificial ideal of emotionless judging can limit judicial officers’ ability to effectively perceive, interpret, and manage their own feelings and those of others, and so may exacerbate their response to stressors.

Much of the recent public attention is on emotions as negative qualities, such as anger, distress, frustration, or sadness, or as sources or symptoms of stress. H0wever the Flinders research reveals that emotion can be a valuable and positive aspect of judicial work, the researchers say.

Qualities such as empathy, compassion, patience and courtesy can bring more meaning to judicial work – even though these demeanours can require emotional effort from judicial officers, they say.

Humour is another emotion resource for the judiciary. This can be deployed in a range of ways, in and out of the courtroom.

Judicial humour is the subject of another book: Judges, Judging and Humour (2018, Palgrave Macmillan), co-edited by Professor Roach Anleu and Dr Jessica Davis Milner from University of Sydney. A chapter by Flinders University Professors Roach Anleu and Mack reinforces the importance of emotion awareness for the judiciary and of emotion management strategies for every day judicial work.

Judicial officers must be able to understand and effectively manage their own emotions and those of others in their courtrooms.

There are now programs directed at ameliorating judicial stress for individuals, and changes in court organisation and work practices to reduce stress on the judiciary and increase work satisfaction.

Similar attention is also needed for court staff, and changes must also take into account the needs of court participants, who are themselves often significantly disadvantaged.

A comment from a magistrate in the National Survey of Australian Magistrates encapsulates the demands and satisfaction of judicial work:

The career extracts its pound/kilos of flesh. There is very little positive feedback. There is hardly ever any opportunity to debrief. I wake in fright at some of the things I hear and see. Why do I do it? Because I know I make a difference in some small way. Because I believe I am privileged. The people in my court are not.

The Adelaide Magistrates Court, Victoria Square.
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