98 per cent of judges in England and Wales and UK tribunals feel that working conditions are worse today than five years ago, according to the UK Judicial Attitudes Survey (JAS) 2014 published last week. In large part this is down to the speed of a large number of changes to the judicial role introduced during this period. Almost three quarters of judges believed there had been ‘too much change’ (though 70 per cent agreed that some change was needed) with 51per cent also declaring that the amount of change has brought judges to breaking point.
The JAS, conducted by the UCL Judicial Institute, is the first survey of its kind. It surveyed all serving salaried judges in England and Wales and non-devolved UK tribunals about their experiences of being a judge. It was carried out by Professor Cheryl Thomas, Co-Director of the Institute, on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, and in response to recommendations by the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB).
The JAS was anonymous and voluntary. It was conducted online through the Judicial Intranet with a very high response rate of 89 per cent. The main subject areas of the questionnaire included: working conditions and resources, salary and pension, training and personal development, change in the judiciary and being a member of the judiciary.
Interestingly – and disappointingly – the gender and race characteristics of those who responded were not included in the profiling stage of the judges. With questions such as the sense of collegiality, the role of facilities for the interaction with other judges and the proportion that would retire earlier if required to sit too far away, being asked in the questionnaire, it would also have been interesting to consider the interrelationship, if any, between gender and judicial morale. I hope that these considerations are included in updates of the survey.
Although a recent Council of Europe report found that British judges were amongst the highest-paid in Europe, one of the main concerns raised by the JAS is that the overwhelming majority of judges do not feel they receive the remuneration their work merits. The pay freeze of judicial salaries, between 2009-2013, as well as a reduction in pension benefits and pay awards, are crucial factors in the judges’ discontent. A third of non-tribunal judges stated that they would consider retiring early in the next five years, with a majority even discouraging suitable applicants to applying due to the limits on pay awards (71 per cent) and reduction in pension benefits (68 per cent).
Almost two-thirds of respondents stated that the morale of the court is poor. 86 per cent of judges who have been in post for at least five years described their working conditions as worse than five years ago. The greatest challenge for the judiciary in the future will be seeking to reverse this trend.
Commenting on the survey, Lord Thomas, in a joint statement with the senior president of tribunals, Lord Justice Sullivan stated:
The survey shows that many judges are feeling, in common with millions of other people, that their work has become harder year after year in many ways. Even though they know they are well paid compared to most people, they like many others, have seen their pay drop in real terms.
Given that judicial salaries fair well in comparison to average salaries in the UK, why should we worry if our judges don’t think they are paid enough?
The message of disillusionment and the threat to justice this generates is unambiguous. At the most extreme, unless judicial salaries are high enough to attract qualified legal professionals and promote a secure environment, then some judges may choose to supplement their income with bribes or even lead to judgeships being up to the highest bidder. Anti-Corruption agencies, such as Transparency International have highlighted the significance of judicial salaries in numerous reports.
Judicial discontent over salaries could well be the canary warning of worse to come.
Upholding the judicial spirit
In his 1979 book The Judge Lord Devlin observed, “The English judiciary is popularly treated as a national institution, like the navy, and tends to be admired to excess”. However, almost forty years later, the survey suggests that almost no judge in England and Wales said they felt valued either by government (2 per cent) or by the media (4 per cent).
What is certain is that judging is not what it used to be. Speaking at the Commonwealth Law Conference in 1993, Canadian Supreme Court Justice, Madam Justice McLachlin, emphasized “Judges are open to more criticism, and they face more difficult tasks than ever before.”
However, at the same time, respondents suggested that the raison d’être of joining the judiciary remains the same: a chance to contribute to justice done (83 per cent).
A judicial spirit still exists, although continuously under attack by government policy initiatives, public misunderstanding and media representation. The vast majority of judges still considered the challenge of work (80 per cent), the pursuit of intellectual satisfaction (73 per cent), and the ability to provide a public service (69 per cent) as key motivators in the pursuit of a judicial career.
From breaking point to turning point
It is this judicial spirit that will perhaps be what turns the current breaking point into a turning point.
For judicial morale to be boosted, judges do not only need to be fiscally rewarded and publicly acknowledged with the respect their post commands but they also need to ‘internally’ reaffirm their group identity as persons of sophisticated skill, character and intellect pursuing a service to society. And it is only then that the judicial vocation will be desirable and revered not only to existing judges, potential – diverse – applicants but also, and perhaps most importantly, to the public.