On the mental health strains associated with judging

Years ago, in practice, I was involved in a series of cases involving allegations that a certain drug had caused infertility in women. I had to depose a number of plaintiffs who had been unable to bear children, and ask them intensely personal questions about their physical and sexual health in order to better ascertain the strength of their claims. I did my very best to handle the situation like a professional, but often the deponents would (understandably) become highly emotional during questioning. For me, an unmarried twenty-something just a few years out of law school, it was an awkward experience. Their reactions would stick with me when I went home at night.

From time to time I would ask my friends who worked as attorneys in the criminal justice system–who spent their days knee-deep in murders, sexual assaults, and various other horrible acts–how they could block those images away when they went home at night. It wasn’t easy at all, they admitted, but somehow they managed. One had to find a way to compartmentalize work and home, for one’s own mental health. And often those images and stories did haunt them at home, as much as in the workplace.

A lengthy story out of Australia keenly illustrates that judges are equally susceptible to these challenges. Six judges in Victoria talked to the Sydney Morning Herald about judicial mental health, including the judges’ environment, coping mechanisms, and (occasionally tragic) responses. As one judge put it:

“It’s been hidden, unspoken, unacknowledged and surrounded by taboo and shame for a long time,” she says. “There’s this sort of almost irreconcilable conflict between being an impartial decision-maker and being a human being who responds in a human way to what we’re doing.

“Because we’ve got to be tough [and] impartial, there’s been a concern about ‘Are you not intellectually rational enough to do the job, or are you too weak as a person if you’re responding on a personal level to other people’s trauma?’ So [there’s] the shame of saying, ‘I’m struggling, I’m finding this hard … I’m finding it hard to reconcile the human part of me with my impassive, impartial demeanour.'”

An important read for anyone involved in the administration of justice.


One thought on “On the mental health strains associated with judging”

  1. Important post . But a judge or alike professional , should always keep in mind, that there is no real conflict between :

    ” being an impartial decision – maker and being a human who responds in a human way to what we’re doing ”

    This is because , even if the scenes are horrific to bear or cop with per se ,yet , the apparent conflict should be settled by simple understanding ( or simple ” mood management ” ) that whatsoever , in decision making terms , the result is valuable . For , if an innocent person is acquitted in criminal case , that is surly good . And if the person has been found guilty , also good . Yet :

    Even if the actual perpetrator is acquitted , yet , and although not desirable , that is a clear sign , that the system is just and objective . It did all what it can , for convicting the person , and yet , by objective and concrete judgment , he has been acquitted . That is a very valuable message for innocent citizens . That is good sign for ordinary people , that indeed the system is impartial and fair . And if one day , an innocent person shall reach such awful day ,facing a judge or the system in criminal case let alone , he shall have or be granted fair and objective trial .

    In sum , that is not a negligible outcome . But very valuable one . Normal and ordinary people , should feel so paradoxically , more safe in fact .



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