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The crisis in judicial morale – is more money the answer?

Penelope Gibbs
03 Mar 2017

Group think is very powerful.  There is group think about why it is difficult to fill judicial posts and why judicial morale is low.  A new survey of judicial attitudes suggests judges think their pay and pension do not reflect their work, while the Lord Chief Justice himself suggested in November that the £180,000 salary of High Court judges is insufficient to attract good candidates.

But is the group think right? There are very few employees who wouldn’t say they were underpaid.  Judges may feel particularly aggrieved since they often take a considerable salary cut on joining the judiciary, and continue to preside over cases involving former colleagues who earn far more. But no judge earns less than £100,000 per year, and many earn considerably more than the Prime Minister and top civil servants. Higher pay may be part of the answer to judicial morale but, as Russell Webster pointed out“given the much greater decline in pay and working conditions for front-line probation and prison officers, it remains to be seen whether Justice Secretary Liz Truss is sympathetic to the plight of our judges”.

The “management” of the judiciary should be concerned about retention as well as recruitment.  Despite the fact that judges are not allowed to return to being practising lawyers, a high proportion think they will leave before retirement – a third say they will resign in the next five years. The judges say that further limits on pay awards (68%) and reductions in pension benefits (68%) are the reasons that will prompt them to throw in the towel, but management research would suggest that other factors matter more. The Boston Consulting Group surveyed over 200,000 employees worldwide. Salary came way down the list of job satisfaction factors. Another study shows that most managers think staff leave because of pay, but 80/90% of people in fact leave for other reasons.

And if you dig deeper into the judicial attitudes survey, you find many reasons why judicial morale is low which have nothing to do with salary.  One of the most startling appears to be an absence of leadership.  Only 27% of all judges feel valued by senior leadership in the judiciary, with the lower ranks of judges feeling least valued.  Only 14% of district judges feel valued by their own senior leadership, while 60% feel valued by parties in court and by legal colleagues. (In the BCG study, the most important factor in people being happy at work is feeling appreciated). Judges also say they don’t get enough support when faced with stressful conditions. To make things worse, judges feel undervalued by the media (unsurprising given the recent “Enemies of the people” coverage) and by the government.

As well as not feeling valued by their “bosses”, many judges feel their opportunities for career progression are poor – 59% said they were poor or non existent.  Over half said they did not have enough time for training and two thirds said they did not have enough opportunities for personal development.

Judges’ woes include reduction in administrative staff and the rise in litigants in person – presumably because it is more stressful to deal with them.  There is not much going well in the world of judges.  A higher renumeration package may seem to their leaders to be the magic wand which will improve everything, but this survey and the wisdom of management academics suggests otherwise.  In fact it indicates that the management of the judiciary needs reform – judges, particularly those at lower levels, seem to feel isolated, unappreciated by their superiors, and unsupported in the daily stresses of dealing with litigants in person, IT that doesn’t seem to work and crumbling buildings.

The Lord Chancellor pointed out some of these things out in her appearance in the Lords this week. She emphasised that she was not head of the Judiciary, that codedly suggested that the judiciary appeared to have serious management problems, and needed to get their own house in order. Even so, she has bowed to some of the salary pressure and recently awarded the most senior judges an 11% pay rise pending the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Board.