Social media abuse discouraging people from becoming judges, LCJ warns

Burnett: Increase judicial retirement age

“Dispiriting and sometimes genuinely frightening” abuse on social media is discouraging people from becoming judges, the Lord Chief Justice has warned.

In a wide-ranging evidence session before the House of Lords constitution committee, Lord Burnett also called for the retirement age for senior judges to be increased from 70 to 75.

Lord Burnett said social media abuse was undermining the rule of law as it “erodes confidence” in the judiciary, adding that some judges have had to take out restraining orders.

The LCJ agreed with peers that there was a distinction to be drawn between criticism and abuse, but there was “still a good deal of abuse being hurled at judges” on social media and online generally, with some “very striking” recent examples.

“It is a particular problem for those operating in the family field and some on tribunals,” he said. “Emotions can run extremely high in these circumstances.

“It is something that affects people, because whatever we do we are human and we all have concerns about our families. It is a significant problem that stretches across society in general.

“I suspect there will not be a solution until the providers of these platforms develop appropriate algorithms to ensure abuse is instantly deleted.”

The LCJ described social media abuse as a “factor that inevitably may play into the recruitment of judges” especially in some jurisdictions. “There is no doubt that it dispiriting and sometimes genuinely frightening for our judges.

“People may ask themselves: ‘Why should I put myself through all that?’”

The LCJ said the government had taken a “good deal of trouble” to provide support and protection for judges.

Responding to a question from Lord Pannick, who asked why abusers could not be prosecuted for contempt of court, Lord Burnett said it was often impossible to identify who they were.

“On occasions the police are informed and do take action. Civil action has also been taken by judges to obtain restraining orders.”

The LCJ highlighted the need to focus on talent in the Government Legal Service and Crown Prosecution Service to help the recruitment of judges.

The LCJ said an increase in the retirement age from 70 to 75 should be considered for senior judges, as “we are losing some judges at the height of their powers”.

Although solicitors represented a “huge reserve of talent that was not coming forward”, Lord Burnett said there was “so much being done to encourage solicitors to become judges, I wonder what more can be done”.

On the court estate, Lord Burnett condemned many buildings as “terrible” and an “embarrassment”, and it was not a question of tens of millions of pounds being needed but “hundreds of millions”.

He said that an emergency fund of £7m had set up to deal with “immediate problems”, such as peeling paint, filthy carpets and broken chairs.

He described the state of accommodation for jurors, in particular, as “frankly disgusting”, though he said the problem was being dealt with.

The LCJ said that “at the heart” of recent failures in disclosure in rape and other trials, currently being reviewed by the Attorney General, was the fact that the people responsible for the system were “under enormous pressure”, including the police and Crown Prosecution Service.

“Those who do the work have too much to do, and they put things off.”

Lord Burnett said he expected the live streaming of selected cases at the Court of Appeal to begin “relatively soon”, though the televising of sentencing remarks in criminal trials was more problematic.

On criminal legal aid, while keen to avoid being drawn into a “trade dispute” or use the word “crisis”, Lord Burnett said Law Society research on the lack of young solicitors had made it clear that the situation was “desperate” in some parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday launched an online learning platform to enable candidates from all legal backgrounds to develop their understanding of the role and skills required of a judge, and how their legal experience has prepared them for judicial office, prior to making an application.

The Pre-Application Judicial Education (PAJE) programme is a joint initiative from the Judicial Diversity Forum, which is made up of the MoJ, Judiciary, Judicial Appointments Commission, Bar Council, Law Society and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and coordinates action to remove barriers to candidates from underrepresented groups applying to be judges.

Additional, targeted support will be available to those applicants from groups that are underrepresented in the judiciary via discussion sessions led by judges.

These aim to give potential candidates insight into the realities of the role and offer an opportunity to address any perceptions they may have on barriers to judicial office.

The MoJ is paying half of the £300,000 cost of PAJE over the next three years, with the other forum partners making up the rest.

The online education will be available from early 2019, with the discussion groups to follow and the MoJ will work with partners to increase awareness amongst practising legal professionals.

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