Unhappy judges not as dissatisfied as they were, research shows

Burnett: Valuable insight

Judges are a bit happier in their jobs than they were five years ago but feel seriously undervalued by the government, the latest judicial attitude survey has revealed.

Almost two-thirds of all judges (64%) said they would encourage suitable people to apply to the judiciary, an increase of 7% from 2016.

But a lack of respect by government is driving judges to consider leaving the bench.

All but 18 of the 1,901 salaried court and tribunal judges in England and Wales responded to the survey, which was carried out for the senior judiciary by the Judicial Institute at University College London.

Though the findings reflect high levels of discontent with various aspects of their jobs, they were generally an improvement from when the survey was last carried out in 2016.

For example, a majority of judges (51%) said they would not leave the judiciary if this was a viable option, compared to 40% in 2016.

In 2020 there was an increase in judges who said they were paid a reasonable salary for the work they did, but it was still under half of all judges (42%). There was a corresponding fall in the number of judges who said salary was affecting their morale, but the proportion was still 51%.

A majority of judges (56%) said working conditions were worse than they were two years ago – with district and circuit judges the unhappiest group – but 76% said the same in 2016.

Three specific working conditions were for the first time rated as either good or excellent by a majority: security at court, quality of administrative support and physical quality of judges’ personal work space.

The one working condition rated poor by a majority of judges was the morale of court and tribunal staff (51%), although this was an improvement from 2016 (64%).

Over two-thirds (69%) of judges felt that members of the judiciary are respected less by society at large than they were five years ago; just 9% felt greatly valued by the government and 12% by the media.

This was clearly preying on judicial minds. The changes judges were most concerned about were “new”, the research said: the loss of respect for the judiciary by the government (94% concerned; 78% extremely concerned) and attacks on the judiciary by the media (85% concerned, 53% extremely concerned).

The lack of respect from government has reached the point where it was “more significant in prompting judges to leave early than any other factor identified in 2016”.

There was also a substantial increase from 2016 in judges who said that stressful working conditions, increases in workload and further demands for out of hours work would make them more likely to leave the judiciary early.

A large proportion said they might consider leaving the judiciary early over the next five years: 33% were considering it and 19% were undecided, but this has fallen 5% since 2016.

Higher remuneration, better administrative support and restoration of previous pension entitlements were the factors most likely to make them stay.

Asked about remote working during Covid, most were satisfied with the quality of internet access they had, but 44% of judges said the standard of IT equipment available to work remotely was poor/non-existent, and 45% said the same for the IT support.

In a joint statement, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett, and Senior President of Tribunals, Sir Keith Lindblom, said: “A judge’s work is fulfilling but also often stressful and harrowing even in normal times.

“We know that during the pandemic they, like so many, have had to show resilience and determination as they have kept the vital public service of the courts operating under difficult conditions.

“We express our gratitude again to them and to the staff and court staff who support them in maintaining justice.

“This is the third time a comprehensive survey of judicial attitudes has been undertaken.  It provides valuable insight into matters of interest and concern and helps inform decision making which affects the judiciary as a whole.”

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