There needs to be a culture of awareness and openness about bullying by judges, the chairman of the Bar Council has said.
Andrew Walker QC said this would help barristers realise that there were not alone in their experiences and also encourage them to raise instances of bullying with leaders in the profession.
The issue of judicial bullying came to the fore earlier this year as more barristers outlined the behaviour they have faced in court, and Mr Walker said the Bar Council was reviewing its guidance on the issue.
Writing for The Barrister magazine, Mr Walker bullying was not a “simple expression of judicial irritation or frustration”, or fair criticism.
“While all incidents of bullying must be judged in context, bullying involves behaviour such as personal abuse, sarcasm, contemptuousness, unreasonable demands, relentless criticism, intemperate language, demeaning behaviour, and comments which are designed to embarrass or humiliate.
“It may also include questioning counsel’s competence or professionalism, or asking counsel to justify him/herself, in circumstances that are unfair.”
Mr Walker recognised the “particular challenges” in dealing with bullying by judges, given their “special position of power and influence over those who appear before them”, the fact that barristers cannot avoid judges who bully, and the potential influence they have on barristers’ future careers and reputation among the judiciary.
He also acknowledged the stress that judges were under, meaning that any approach to dealing with bullying should take “due account of the cause”, and he called for measures to address judicial weelbeing.
But he continued: “Bar Council advice is to be civil but firm with any bullying judge, opponent or clerk, to seek advice about it, and to report it; but that is at a high level, and more is needed.
“Whatever else we may seek to do, we must encourage a culture of awareness and openness, very much as we have been trying to do with wellbeing at the Bar.”
Mr Walker identified two particular elements of this: “First, I hope that with this issue now in the open, 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.”
Second, barristers should be encouraged to raise incidents of bullying with leaders in the profession, from heads of chambers and circuit leaders up to and including the chair of the Bar if needed.
“Our leaders must set an example, and must ensure that judicial bullying can be brought to their attention and addressed.”
Mr Walker said there may be circumstances where other or all counsel in court should intervene.
“I would also encourage chambers and other organisations to include advice on bullying by judges in the mentoring and support that they offer to more junior members, and not to be too shy about making inquiries of other barristers and chambers if a local judge is behaving out of line.”