Why research judicial wellbeing?
Legal professions around the world have traditionally been both highly stressful and highly stress denying. The past decade or so has seen an emergence of quality research into the prevalence and sources of stress among law students and practising lawyers, revealing alarmingly high rates of depression and anxiety across all levels of the profession.
However, the inquiry has rarely extended to judicial officers. It is important that it does. As senior members of a stress-prone profession, managing workloads bordering on the oppressive, in the context of professional isolation, intense scrutiny, and often highly traumatic material, there is good reason to expect that judicial officers are at particular risk of work-related stress. Given the impact of judicial decisions in people’s lives, and the pivotal role they play in our democratic system, courts arguably have a duty, not only to individual judges but to the community more generally, to investigate and promote judicial wellbeing.
Current judicial wellbeing research
The Judicial College of Victoria is recognised as a world leader among judicial educators in developing programs and resources to promote judicial wellbeing. Beginning with the landmark ‘Court Craft: 360 Degree Feedback’ program, which addressed the fundamental psychological need for honest and constructive feedback, and continuing with programs on judicial leadership, mindfulness, stress, and resilience, the College has long recognised its role in supporting judicial officers to meet the uncommon pressures and complications of judicial work.
In 2015, the College determined that robust, empirical research was needed to support ongoing work in this area. The College is working collaboratively with a researcher from the University of Melbourne, School of Psychological Sciences to explore the nature, prevalence and severity of judicial stress in Australia, and to investigate the factors that promote and undermine wellbeing in the judicial environment. An aim of the research project will be to identify, with reference to comparable overseas projects, possible interventions that could be implemented to support judicial officers in their roles.
Five Australian courts, from summary to appellate level participated in the study. One hundred fifty-two (152) judicial officers participated in a survey measuring different forms of stress, including psychological distress, depressive and anxious symptoms, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and alcohol use. Sixty (60) judicial officers participated in in-depth interviews exploring experiences and perceived sources of stress. From the outset, the research has had the support of the Heads of the five participating jurisdictions, and other judicial education bodies, including the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA).
A short preview of the research findings was published in The Australian Law Journal in November 2018, and the first comprehensive report of the survey findings was published in May 2019 in the Journal of Judicial Administration. This first report sets out the research methodology and looks at whether judicial officers are stressed compared to lawyer and the general population. The second comprehensive report was published in May 2021 in Psychiatry Psychology and Law, and looks at which judicial officers are most stressed, and why. A final report, to be published in 2022, will review the qualitative data arising from the 60 interviews, providing the first empirical into the sources and impacts of stress in judicial office, as well as ideas for court responses.
BSci, LLB, MPsych/PhD Candidate
Judicial Wellbeing Advisor, Judicial College of Victoria
Carly is a lawyer, clinically trained psychologist, and award-winning empirical researcher, with more than 10 years’ experience in judicial education. As part of her combined Master of Psychology (Clinical) / PhD at the University of Melbourne, Carly has conducted Australia’s first empirical and psychologically grounded research into the sources and nature of work-related stress among the Australian judiciary. She has published several papers arising from this research.
In her role as Judicial Wellbeing Advisor to the Judicial College of Victoria, Carly developed Australia’s first Judicial Wellbeing online resource, and works with the Victorian jurisdictions to develop of a range of judicial wellbeing programs and resources. She is a regular presenter at national and international judicial conferences on the topic of judicial stress and wellbeing, and has been engaged by jurisdictions in Australia and overseas to design and deliver tailored wellbeing programs for the local judiciary. Carly also works with the legal profession to provide wellbeing and stress management training.
If you would like to know more about the judicial wellbeing research project, please email the Judicial Wellbeing Project Advisor