The Bar Council has called on barristers to take action over bullying by judges that they experience or witness, and is looking at a new approach to overcome reluctance to report incidents.
In a sign of the growing concern over the problem, the Bar Council last week issued advice to practitioners, while stressing that it believed “only a very small number of judges are bullies”.
The advice said: “It is recognised that judges have to work under significant pressures and they are no more immune from the effects of stress than the rest of us.
“Nonetheless, however small the number of occasions when judicial bullying occurs, it is always unacceptable.”
The Bar Council said it was also looking “to adopt a system that uses technology to help overcome barristers’ understandable reluctance to report bullying, or to take action about it”.
This is being developed at the moment and will be publicised shortly once it is in place.
In the meantime, the advice outlined what barristers should do when faced with judicial bullying.
“By publicising and giving these options the firm backing of those who lead our profession, it is hoped that the profession as a whole will encourage barristers to take action, whether they are the victim of bullying or witness it, and support them in the process,” it said.
“The Bar Council wishes to encourage a culture of awareness and openness about bullying, and the serious impact that it can have on those who are bullied.
“With this issue now in the open, it hoped that barristers at all levels will realise that they are not alone in their experiences and should not have to ‘tough it out’ against bullying.
“We need to be able to discuss this without fear of being seen as weak or incompetent. Bullying can and does happen to the strongest and best of us. We must continue to talk about it, and to be proactive in raising our concerns with colleagues.”
The Bar Council encouraged chambers and other organisations to include advice on bullying by judges in the mentoring and support that they offered to more junior members, “and not to be too shy about making confidential inquiries of other barristers and chambers if a local judge appears to be behaving out of line”.
But it stressed that “a simple expression of judicial irritation or frustration is not bullying; nor is a fair and measured criticism of the conduct or work of counsel, or of someone else that is directed towards counsel”.
The Bar Council acknowledged the “widespread fear” that any complaint – even an anonymous one – could somehow lead to consequences for the complainant and/or the target of the bullying.
The body said it understood this fear, but warned that, “if we do not take action, it will be very difficult for us to stamp out bullying, and others will continue to suffer”.
It added that it was rare for a barrister to be the only person to have experienced bullying by a particular judge: “It may take just one individual to step forward for others to be encouraged to do so.”
Further, “in most cases, it should be possible for action to be taken on a strictly confidential basis, which avoids the possibility of identification”, and in any case the Senior Presiding Judge, Lady Justice Macur, has told the Bar Council that she was committed to ensuring that no barrister suffered adverse consequences as a result of making “a genuine and well-founded complaint, in a responsible way”.
The advice said: “We also believe that the fear of adverse consequences is often misplaced and can become exaggerated in our own minds.
“We hope that if you follow this advice, you may be reassured about your fears, although we recognise that many may still be nervous about making a complaint.”
The Bar Council urged barristers to address bullying whenever it happened if possible.
“A timely response, if it can be given, may be more effective both in addressing the incident itself and in helping the judge to understand the impact (and, at times, how the judge’s behaviour is coming across more generally).”
It also urged senior practitioners, or those in leadership positions, who were in court at the time of the bullying to consider taking issue with it at the time, especially if the target was a more junior practitioner.
“Your intervention may help to reduce the impact on the target and show them that the senior members of the profession are prepared to stand up and be counted in support of our more junior members.
“Always be mindful though of the effect it might have upon the victim of the bullying and their client and be alive to a potential loss of confidence in the barrister by the client or of an unseemly courtroom scene developing.
“If you have bullying reported to you at court shortly after it has occurred, then it may be more appropriate to enquire of the more junior practitioner if they would appreciate intervention.”
The advice said that, even if a barrister decided against making a formal complaint, they should not do nothing.
“In simple terms, informal routes involve approaching – confidentially – someone in a position of leadership in the profession, whether their leadership role is formal or informal.
“They should be able to help you to identify your options and decide what action might be taken, whether by you, by them, or by someone else.”