Introducing solutions for maintaining positive psychological health: the judicial wellbeing portal[1]

E Kennedy[2]

The Judicial Commission has launched a judicial wellbeing portal on the Judicial Information Research System (JIRS) to assist judicial officers maintain and sustain a healthy judicial life.

In recent years there has been a spotlight on judicial wellbeing, with a number of studies highlighting the unique stressors placed on judicial officers. The death by suicide of two Victorian Magistrates in 2017 and 2018 shocked the judicial community around Australia. The NSW Judicial Commission, together with the University of NSW, agitated for an investigation into the psychological health of NSW judicial officers.

Professors Jill Hunter and Prue Vines, Faculty of Law; Professor Richard Kemp, Faculty of Psychology; and Kevin O’Sullivan, Clinical Psychologist, prepared a report which analysed the responses of 205 NSW judicial officers to questions about traumatic stress, threats to person, vicarious trauma and vilification.[3]

Respondents reported alarmingly high levels of psychological distress, with 30% receiving test scores indicative of likely PTSD. Twenty-three per cent of us had experienced death threats. Seventy-five per cent of us experienced negative effects associated with vicarious trauma and more than half reported vilification. Magistrates reported significantly higher levels of trauma-related symptoms, compared to other judicial officers.

In some ways, the different results for magistrates are unsurprising, given the huge volume of criminal matters that pass through the Local Court. In NSW, the Local Court processes all the State’s criminal and domestic violence matters. Since the advent of the EAGP reforms and changes to the Tables of offences which may be finalised in the summary jurisdiction, many more of the serious assaults, including sexual offences, and serious domestic violence offences are dealt with to finality in the Local Court. Any one magistrate may have to deal at times with over 100 such matters in just one day.

There are different and sometimes greater pressures and stressors in the higher jurisdictions. The workloads are high and time is finite. The civil jurisdictions are often forgotten in the conversation about judicial wellbeing, but should not be, with a huge volume of often lengthy cases, usually involving complex issues. Pressure increases as reserved decisions bank up and judges do not have enough time to prepare and deliver decisions of the quality that might be preferred by them. There is only so much time to do the task well. All jurisdictions are under huge pressure, now even more so with COVID delays.

The Honourable Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG (as he then was) wrote an article in 1995, entitled “Judicial stress: an unmentionable topic” in which he observed:[4]

The time has come to break the silence. Bringing stress out into the open will be good for us all. I can write about the topic because, after 30 years in various judicial offices, subjected to a lot of stress over that time by the work, the legal profession, politicians, the media and (on occasion) my colleagues, I feel I can discuss stress without the embarrassment which others might feel. By identifying its causes, classifying its features and suggesting a few solutions, I may contribute usefully to the orientation of those who are beginning their lives as judicial officers. What I say may also have relevance to other judges, lawyers and others. Judicial stress is just one variety of stress in human beings. But daily exposure to sharp differences, disputes and argumentation render judicial officers especially vulnerable as a group.

Since 1995, few have sought to study and consider this issue.

In 2017, his Honour Magistrate David Heilpern (as he then was) presented an important paper from a personal perspective called “Lifting the judicial veil: vicarious trauma, PTSD, and the judiciary: a personal story” to draw attention to the issue.[5]

In 2019, Ms Carly Schrever from the University of Melbourne,[6] published the results of an investigation and research involving 152 judicial officers from five Australian courts.[7] Ms Schrever made this clear statement:[8]

As senior members of a stress-prone profession, managing workloads bordering on the oppressive, in the context of professional isolation, intense scrutiny and often highly traumatic material, there is good reason to expect that judicial officers are at particular risk of work-related stress. Given the impact of judicial decisions on people’s lives and the pivotal role they play in our democratic system, courts arguably have a duty, not only to individual judges, but to the community more generally, to investigate and promote judicial wellbeing.

Ms Schrever has continued her impressive work, recently publishing “Where stress presides: predictors and correlates of stress among Australian judges and magistrates”.[9] Subject to funding, it is hoped that a national study can proceed with the UNSW team, Carly Schrever and others.[10] This is supported by the Victorian Judicial College, NSW Judicial Commission and Chief Justices in the other jurisdictions.

With the support of the former Chief Magistrate, his Honour Judge Henson AM, the NSW Magistrates Association responded to this research and created a wellbeing sub-committee to support its members. It privately commissioned a further report from the UNSW that extracted and analysed relevant results from the original study that related to the some 140 members of the judiciary based in the Local Court.

That report highlighted a simple but obvious truth: as in so many professions within the community, there will be stressors, direct trauma and vicarious trauma — those things can never be eliminated — but to ignore their very existence is to invite the development of serious psychological harm through development of conditions such as PTSD, or exacerbate existing underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression.

While you can’t eliminate stressors or trauma exposure, you can address psychological health to prevent damage to the mind. Past focus has been always on physical health and wellbeing, ignoring the fact that the mind also needs care.

Many of us are regularly privy to psychological reports setting out issues that have caused great distress in other’s lives. We might have said to people appearing before us, “you can’t bottle it up, it will boil over”. Perhaps 26 years after the Honourable Michael Kirby articulated the problems, it is now time to take our own advice and start positively addressing our own psychological health.

Fortunately, the NSW Judicial Commission has done just that with the creation of the judicial wellbeing portal on JIRS. The Commission is changing the culture of the psychological conversation in NSW. It has been a driving force in keeping up with evolving WHS law around the world to support a healthy mind in the workplace. The courtroom is our workplace; we need to be equipped to deal with the unique stressors in that environment.

The judicial wellbeing portal has drawn together solutions and supports for positive psychological health. Included among these is the now almost ubiquitous concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness as a practice has achieved almost cultish status, but perhaps is just a modern name for a concept that has existed for centuries. Be it called reflection, meditation, retreat, sometimes as part of a religious or cultural tradition, such practices have spanned the globe for as long as we have been here. Yet it seems that in recent times that we have put less emphasis on these matters. Perhaps we are now seeing the results of that neglect.

So, whether it is mindfulness, meditation education or information, or psychological and scientific studies and explanations, the portal will have something for you. You may be coping well in your judicial space but other life stressors may be causing you some distress like parenting, your relationships, or dealing with parents who are aged, frail or who have dementia. The portal has some ideas to help. It may be that managing your judicial judgment load is a current difficulty. Again, the portal can help.

If you would like to know how to support colleagues — the portal has information and suggestions. All of this is found in one place, and is very easy to navigate. It is practical and it has been designed for you.

It is incumbent on all of us to look after ourselves and those around us. We need to remove the negative connotations that attach to workplace stress. It is merely psychological health. Experiencing psychological ill-health or trauma is no more a weakness than suffering a strained knee ligament; both have causes and both can be treated.

The new Chief Magistrate, his Honour Judge Johnstone, has embraced the wellbeing sub-committee of the Magistrates Association and is establishing a formal Local Court wellbeing committee, with the aim of further addressing these issues to promote the psychological wellbeing of all magistrates and actively prevent personal and judicial disaster.

It would be good to see a modern and necessary strategy for all jurisdictions around the country to implement a structure for psychological care of their judicial officers. At the end of the day, we are the end point of the administration of justice. We need to be well to ensure that all who come before us are dealt with as they should be.

Ms Schrever said it succinctly:[11]

Judicial officers are the pinnacle of the legal profession, protectors of the rule of law, and the third arm of government, and as such their occupational wellbeing and sustainability is a vital community concern.

To the Honourable Michael Kirby and those who have issued warnings in the past — thank you, we have been a bit slow but we are waking up. And congratulations to the Judicial Commission for creating this portal to help us all take the next step forward.

Note: The judicial wellbeing portal is an evolving and responsive portal. The Judicial Commission welcomes any suggestions as to its scope and content.[12]

[1] Published at (2021) 33(11) JOB 111.

[2] Her Honour Magistrate E Kennedy is a Magistrate of the Local Court of NSW.

[3] K O’Sullivan, J Hunter, P Vines and R Kemp, “Traumatic stress in judicial officers — prevalence and impact”, pre-print available, accessed 9 June 2022. See also, J Hunter, R Kemp, K O’Sullivan and P Vines, “A fragile bastion: UNSW judicial traumatic stress study” (2021) 33(1) JOB 1.

[4] M Kirby, “Judicial Stress” (1995) 2(3) TJR 199, and a revised version at Judicial Commission of NSW, The role of the judge, Education Monograph No 3, 2004, p 43.

[6] In conjunction with Associate Professor Carol Hulbert (Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences) and Professor Tania Sourdin (Newcastle Law School).

[9] C Schrever, C Hulbert and T Sourdin, “Where stress presides: predictors and correlates of stress among Australian judges and magistrates” (2021) Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, accessed 9 June 2022.

[10] Professor Natalie Skead (University of WA); Associate Professor Kylie Burns (Griffith University, Qld); Professor Sharyn Roach Anleu (Flinders University, SA); Governor Kate Warner and Associate Professor Terese Henning (University of Tas) and Carly Schrever (University of Melbourne, Vic).

[11] C Schrever, “Australia’s first research measuring judicial stress and wellbeing: a preview of the findings” (2018) 92(11) ALJ 859 at 862.

[12] Please contact Catherine Kenny, Education Projects Manager, with suggestions at