Australian judges and magistrates experience high rates of stress, study finds

Judge and lawyer standing in a corridor
Judicial officers like judges and magistrate are coping with their high stress work, but many report high levels of psychological distress. Image: Getty Images

An Australian-first survey of the wellbeing of judges and magistrates has revealed a judiciary at risk of burnout or trauma from having to constantly deal with high workloads and the harrowing details of serious crimes.

The psychological survey of over 150 judges, magistrates and other judicial officers, found that the judiciary was generally coping well with the stresses of their work, with levels of mental health problems like depression and anxiety similar to the general population, which is well below the rest of the legal profession.

The survey found that a third were experiencing “moderate to severe” symptoms of secondary traumatic stress – the psychological distress people can experience when working with traumatic material and traumatised people.

It also found that rates of psychological distress among the judiciary were significantly higher than that among barristers and the general population.

“There isn’t a mental health crisis in the judiciary, but this study has confirmed that there are high rates of distress among judges and magistrates, and that is concerning,” said University of Melbourne PhD candidate Carly Schrever.

“This is something that courts and governments need to turn their attention to, particularly as the pressures on the system seem to increase in terms of workload and other stressors.”

Key findings included:

  • Judges and magistrates are human beings and are affected in a very human way by the difficult and complex work that they do
  • The research revealed a judicial system under considerable stress, but not yet in mental health crisis
  • Constant exposure to human misery, conflict and violence, coupled with very high workloads, has an impact on judges and magistrates
  • Judges and magistrates are stressed and under-pressure, but so far it is not generally impacting their ability to perform their roles to the standard expected by the community – we can have confidence in our courts and in judicial decisions
  • Since the data was collected (2016-2017), many courts around Australia have implemented a number of programs and initiatives to manage judicial stress and support judges in their work.

Judicial College of Victoria chief executive Samantha Burchell said: “The vicissitudes of a judicial life are inevitably stressful. Ms Schrever’s research reinforces in a rigorous way the absolute need for judicial education to build and support a resilient workforce of judges and magistrates.

“The Judicial College of Victoria is leading this work through innovative education programs for the judiciary that address both individual and systemic considerations. Forthcoming programs include an ‘Insight in Trauma’ and ‘Judicial Peer Support’ for court leaders.”

The research was undertaken as part of Ms Schrever’s PhD at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, with in-principle and in-kind support from the Judicial College of Victoria where she is the Judicial Wellbeing Adviser.

The research is the first to produce empirical data on stress and well-being among the Australian judiciary. It is published in the Journal of Judicial Administration.

During 2016-2017 Ms Schrever spent over a year surveying 152 judges, magistrates and other judicial officers from five Australian courts. She carried out in-depth interviews with 60 of them, to further investigate sources and experiences of stress.

The survey comprised a number of validated psychometric tests – including the Maslach Burnout Inventory – General Scale, the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale, and the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales 21.

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