Judges and judging

“The unique stressors of judicial life”

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Last year, the country’s 46 High Court judges and associate judges, hearing cases at 18 High Court locations around the country, managed from circuits in each Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch in comparable proportion to their catchment, delivered over 3,300 judgments – roughly 1.5 judgments per judge per sitting week, well over 90% within three months of hearing.

The Chief High Court Judge’s Report of the Year in Review (17/5/16) notes the judges largely met or exceeded their performance targets for timeliness of judgments, time to trial, and clearances. Over 4,000 civil and criminal proceedings were resolved in 2015, keeping pace with the very similar number and proportion of new proceedings issued in the year. 90% of general proceedings’ hearings estimated to take a week or less occurred within 12 months of their commencement; 95% of longer hearings, within 18 months. The only significant blip in the numbers is caused by dispatch in 2015 of some old cases, extending the average time to resolution by trial, trending downwards for years,  by 25%.

Justice Venning’s Report isolates interesting aspects of the High Court’s business in 2015: contractual disputes have reasserted their primacy as core court business, after some years of being displaced by more ‘event’-based proceedings – debt recovery in wake of the GFC, and weathertightness and Christchurch earthquake claims; over 90% of the last, closely managed by allocation of additional judicial resource to Christchurch, settled before trial; fewer criminal cases go to trial, with sentencing indications having their impact in guilty pleas in a third of prosecutions; and the Auckland circuit has disproportionately too few courtrooms for its 60% share of the national workload (while the Wellington circuit, although overburdened with civil appeals, is more generously served).

Statistically then, as well as anecdotally, the High Court judges are hard-working servants of the justice system. But the relentless demand for their determination of adversarial civil and often traumatic criminal cases, under open scrutiny of the appellate courts, is a cruel taskmaster. Legal practice is a notoriously demanding and exacting profession, and arguably even mannered and ritualistic litigation more so, in which the unremitting need for timely case management and fair and rational decision-making offers no respite to judges.

Identifying “the unique stressors of judicial life”, the Judicial College of Victoria in Australia has compiled a battery of resources aimed at establishing and maintaining judicial wellbeing, largely from a perspective of workplace safety, and recognising the irony judges are to enforce those standards on other professions and industries. Those resources observe in particular the immense individual responsibility on first instance judges evenhandedly to manage their constituency’s often conflicting expectations – from court staff, counsel, witnesses, jurors, parties (including the unrepresented, for whom the Ministry of Justice now provides web-based resources), media, and the community. While the Judicial College has commissioned formal research to identify necessary judicial support, it also notes the singular benefit arising from the constituency’s regard for judges with civility and respect.

[This article was first published in The Capital Letter (39/21, 7 June 2016)]

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