Judges, Magistrates, Scrutiny, and Mental Health with Lawyer and Psychologist Carly Schrever
Ellen Jackson: Today, we're talking about the wellbeing of our judicial officers, our judges and our magistrates. And my guest is Carly Schrever. She is the Judicial Wellbeing Advisor for the Judicial College of Victoria, a current PhD candidate and researcher at the University of Melbourne, a lawyer, a psychologist, and the mother of identical twin boys.
Ellen Jackson: Carly is passionate about facilitating meaningful and enriching conversations with our judges and magistrates, a collection of pretty smart and passionate professionals, who fulfill both a complex and important role in our society. And we're going to be talking about the wellbeing of this group, and the role that they do play, and the research that Carly has been doing.
Ellen Jackson: So, welcome Carly.
Carly Schrever: Hi Ellen. Lovely to be with you.
Ellen Jackson: It's very exciting to have you here. You and I met a little while ago, talking to our local lawyers here in Ballarat. So you made the trip out from Melbourne, which is very generous of you, to come and talk to our local legal profession about wellbeing. We discovered a mutual interest, coming from slightly different angles, in wellbeing for, not just our legal profession, but I suppose wellbeing in professions generally, and wellbeing at work.
Ellen Jackson: And I was fascinated to learn a bit more about your research, so this is a great opportunity to have a chat about it.
Carly Schrever: Great.
Ellen Jackson: Can I start by asking you how you got interested in researching this topic yourself?
Carly Schrever: Sure. So, look, there's a long version, and a short version to that story, so I'll try and give the short version. I started my professional life as a lawyer. I did a law degree straight out of school, probably for all the wrong reasons like many people do. I got good marks in Year 12, I thought that means I should either do law or medicine. Toss up: did law. And I persisted with it because I didn't hate it, I certainly didn't feel passionate about it, but I didn't hate it. Started my professional life as a lawyer at one of the big firms, then was a judges' associate at the Supreme Court.
Carly Schrever: And it was after about three years in practice that I had, I suppose you might call it a mini career crisis, where I realized pretty deeply that legal practice was not the vocation for me, long term. So I decided to go back to university and retrain as a clinical psychologist. And at that time I took up a position at the Judicial College of Victoria, really to just pay the bills at the time, without any expectation that it would lead to more. But through doing that educational work with the judges and magistrates of Victoria, I came to deeply care about them and the work that they do for society. And also the human dimension of that work, the capacity for that work to have a personal toll.
Carly Schrever: When I was undertaking my Masters of Clinical Psychology, I had a conversation with the then chief judge of our county court, who at the time was Michael Rozenes, and he said to me he was very aware that there'd been a growing body of research revealing high rates of depression and stress and anxiety within the legal profession generally, but that that research hadn't extended to the judiciary. And he was also aware of the increasingly demanding nature of the work of the judges in his court, and conscious also that a lot of the senior judges were choosing to retire as soon as they reached the minimum retirement age, rather than the sort of statutory mandatory retirement age. Which meant that the court was losing a lot of its most experienced judges.
Carly Schrever: So he said to me, "We really need to have a conversation about wellbeing." At that stage, the topic of judicial stress was really quite taboo, the suggestion that judges might be emotionally or personally impacted by the work that they do was something that no one was really talking about. Whereas Michael Rozenes said, "Okay, we need to start talking about it. And to have a proper conversation we need robust evidence and research." So I knew that I had to do a Masters' thesis, and I thought, well that's a good idea, I'll do it for my Masters' thesis. But as I explored it, it became clear it was too big for that, so then it became a PhD.
Ellen Jackson: Little did you know when you were embarking on that path, that you would not only be combining, I suppose, that original degree that you did, that original area of study with your new passion and area of study as a psychologist, but, also, that that would grow to become something significant for your initial profession?
Carly Schrever: That's true. I feel like I kind of landed on my life's work, really. I feel really passionate about it. And having done the research now, and I'm in the final stages of writing it up, all I can see is opportunities to take this further, now that we have a base level of research, what we can do with that information to take it further. Not only for the judiciary in Victoria, and around Australia, overseas, but then also just thinking about the legal profession more generally, and other professions for that matter.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. So can you tell us a little bit about these people? What is the path? Because, probably, many of our listeners have never met a magistrate or a judge or had any kind of involvement. What's the pathway to becoming a member of the judiciary, and what kind of people are we talking about here?
Carly Schrever: Sure. Okay. So magistrates and judges are the senior members of our legal profession. So to be a magistrate or a judge you have to have a law degree, and you have to have certain numbers of years of practice. In reality, most judges at the Supreme County, Federal, and certainly High Court level, they had a very successful and illustrious career as barristers, generally speaking, prior to their appointment. That's not exclusively the case, so some judges are appointed from the senior ranks of solicitors, and also from legal academia as well. But the overwhelming majority of them were barristers, prior to their appointment.
Carly Schrever: Among magistrates it's slightly different. A lot of barristers also become magistrates, but probably a larger proportion were working as solicitors. Because of the work of the magistrates' court being mostly in crime, a lot of magistrates have a background working in criminal law, prior their appointment. Yeah.
Ellen Jackson: And what's the difference between a judge and a magistrate?
Carly Schrever: Okay. So there's basically a hierarchy of courts. And there's also two systems in Australia because we're a federation, so there's a state system and a federal system. In the state system you've got what we call the summary jurisdictions, so those are kind of entry level courts, and that includes the Magistrates' Court, the Children's Court, and the Coroners' Court. Then there's the intermediate level, and that, in Victoria, is called the County Court of Victoria. In other states it's often referred to as the District Court.
Carly Schrever: So magistrates here, pretty much everything at some stage goes through the Magistrates' Court. They hear a huge amount of matters relating to family violence, applications, intervention orders, traffic incidents, what's colloquially referred to as "Crash and Bash", and the kind of lower level crimes. So magistrates can have a range of sentencing options available to them, and oftentimes when they're sentencing somebody it might be to a term of imprisonment, or be to a Community Corrections' Order, or something else. But they can sentence people to a term of imprisonment of, I think it's up to three years.
Carly Schrever: When the crimes or, indeed, the civil disputes, are a bit more serious, then they're heard in the County Court. And so, a County Court judge seeing a crime, they're hearing all what we call indictable sex offenses, so indictable means needs to be tried by a jury. And they also hear culpable driving matters, aggravated burglary, serious assaults; those kinds of matters. And they also are hearing medium level commercial and civil disputes.
Carly Schrever: Then in the Supreme Court in each of the states, that's where all the homicide cases are heard, really serious drug trafficking, terrorist matters, are heard in the Supreme Court. And, also, they've got unlimited jurisdiction when it comes to commercial matters and civil matters as well.
Ellen Jackson: Okay.
Carly Schrever: And then, I guess I should say that the nature of the hierarchy is that if a matter is decided, say, in the Magistrates' Court and the parties want to appeal it, it gets appealed to the County Court. If a matter is heard in either the County Court, or the Trial Division of the Supreme Court, and the parties want to appeal it, it's appealed to the Court of Appeal in that state. And then the Court of Final Appeal, so, at the end of the road is the High Court of Australia and Canberra.
Ellen Jackson: Okay. And where does the Family Court fit into that?
Carly Schrever: Okay-
Ellen Jackson: It's, maybe, one that more of our listeners have had some exposure to somewhere.
Carly Schrever: Sure. Sure. That's a really good question. I was just, then, talking about the state system. Now, there's a federal system which basically deals with disputes or any issues arising from laws made by the commonwealth government as opposed to the state government. So there are three courts currently in the federal system: there's the Federal Circuit Court, which used to be called the Federal Magistrates' Court, there's the Federal Court of Australia, and the Family Court of Australia.
Carly Schrever: So the Federal Circuit Court hears a lot of family law matters, actually, and also a lot of immigration matters. The Family Court of Australia hears, I guess, the bigger, more complex family law disputes. And the Federal Court of Australia hears a whole range of matters including intellectual property and corporations' law, and appeals from the Federal Circuit Court, and that sort of thing.
Ellen Jackson: So our magistrates and our judges, who sit and make these judgements in relation to all of these issues that you've mentioned, which, I must admit, I suppose if I thought it through maybe I would have gone, "That's a lot of stuff!"
Carly Schrever: Yeah. Sure is.
Ellen Jackson: Car accidents, to immigration, to civil disputes, to crime, to family law.
Carly Schrever: Family law, yep, yep.
Ellen Jackson: And, so, they're making big important decisions. Why is their mental health and wellbeing significant?
Carly Schrever: Right. Okay. Well, obviously, it's significant for them. And I'm sure that we all want all our professionals, in all sectors, to be able to do the complex work that they do and not feel adversely impacted by that. It's obviously important for the judges and magistrates doing the work that they're able to do it and feel well while they're doing it.
Carly Schrever: But because of the role that they fulfill, not only in society, but also in our democracy, because we have to remember that the courts are the third arm of government. So the courts also hold governments to account: governments are not above the law either. So the independence, impartiality, integrity of our court system is fundamental to our democratic system. And, so, the individuals that are sitting in judicial office are the ones that basically uphold that. And, so, because they're in these really critical and crucial positions of responsibility and authority, there is the potential for stress that they might experience in the role to affect more than just themselves.
Carly Schrever: So there's the potential, and we know this from a lot of research that's been done just generally on, say, human decision making, that stress has the potential to impact our decision making. It makes it more likely that we will take mental shortcuts in making a decision, because decisions are hard things to make, which might lead to making safer, more conservative decisions, or decisions that are perhaps more infused by unconscious bias or stereotypes, and that sort of thing.
Carly Schrever: We also know that, from population research on stress, that stress has the capacity to undermine our impulse control and our emotion regulations, so how we might behave in an intense situation. And because, in the court room, people are looking to the judge to be that force of rationality and order and calm in the face of what would otherwise be possibly a pub brawl, or something really chaotic, the judge and the magistrate, this capacity to regulate their emotions and remain calm in the face of all of that, is what the community expects to a large degree.
Carly Schrever: Now, as I'm saying this, I want to be really clear that there's no evidence to suggest that the stress that a judge or a magistrate might be subjectively experiencing is in fact impacting their ability to make decisions, or impacting their ability to regulate their emotions and their behavior in court. There's no evidence to that effect at all. There hasn't been specific research done on that. But because we know just from general research that's been done about the impacts of stress, then I think it's important for us to think about how stress might impact the human beings that are sitting in judicial office in those ways.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. That's what struck me as you were describing that, because I was sort of trying to imagine myself in that position of having to take on a lot of complex information, from an array of different sources, not just ... Well, there's those presenting it, but all of the background, all of the history, all the reading that you've done, I know there's a huge amount of preparation that's required, for judges and magistrates to do before they're even presented with evidence in court.
Ellen Jackson: So to be able to take all of that, synthesize that kind of in the moment, to be able to ask the relevant questions, the burden of responsibility to get it right, the fact that you then do have to manage your own emotions and regulate that, I mean there would be some ... And I'll ask you a little bit about the traumatic effect of the content of some of this information, shortly, but you've got to be able to absorb all of that, while maintaining your cool, and helping others to maintain their cool, too. I know they have a responsibility to make sure that nobody else is starting to lose the plot.
Ellen Jackson: And to do all of that in the context of ... We all have bad days. We all have days when we are stressed, overworked, didn't sleep well, had an argument with the partner, struggling with finances, all the other factors that create stress in our lives. So that is a huge thing to be able to do all of that in one go.
Carly Schrever: I think you're absolutely right, Ellen. And when I started doing my research, I guess, the literature review for my PhD, I was looking at all the kind of peculiar aspects of judicial work. And I kind of clustered together these groups of stressors into three categories that I call stressors of workload, work type, and work culture. And everything you've mentioned, and a number of other things as well, come into that. So, yes, it's an inherently, and to some extent irreducibly demanding and difficult job that judges and magistrates are expected to perform.
Carly Schrever: They have really high workloads at all levels of the system, although it's experienced slightly differently at different levels. As you say, they're having to receive, and process, and make decisions upon really complex information, often with highly traumatic content. In the context of being the most visible person in the courtroom, and the one that has to manage the courtroom atmosphere. Often having to manage the mental health issues of people that might be coming before the court, without any specific training in mental health. And being daily immersed just in an atmosphere of conflict and disagreement, which is not something that ... most of the time, the rest of us are not inhabiting that space. So that is the kind of atmosphere of a courtroom on a daily basis.
Carly Schrever: And, then, alongside all of that, there's kind of these other stressors that I call work culture or work environment stressors, which is that the role is actually quite an isolating one. So when judges and magistrates are appointed, their previous friendships and relationships necessarily change to a certain extent. Because probably a lot of their close friendships, particularly their collegial ones with practicing lawyers, and now those people are appearing before them, so there's a shift there.
Carly Schrever: Also, just the structure of the working day. Judges and magistrates go from their chambers ... they call their office their chambers. Their chambers, to court, and back again, with very limited opportunity to interact with each other. And there's also a custom that judges don't go, even if they do have some spare time, don't go and observe each other in court. So it's isolating. The nature of it is it's very public, anybody can walk in. Everything that is said in court ends up on transcript. There's intense scrutiny via the media, by Appellate Courts.
Carly Schrever: And there's also this need, I mean we could call it a perceived need but I think it's a very real need, for judges and magistrates to constrain the spontaneous expression of their emotion while they're sitting on the bench. So they may have a whole host of intense reactions to what they're hearing in court, you know, the evidence that's being presented, or how people are behaving or whatever, but because of the neutrality of their role and the visibility of their position in the courtroom, they have to constrain the expression of that emotion, which is difficult in and of itself.
Carly Schrever: So there's all of these factors that together ... And I guess there's another one that I should mention, which is that from time to time judges and magistrates can find themselves the targets of stalking type behavior, if there's a particular litigant that's unhappy with the decision that they've made. So there's safety concerns in the role as well.
Carly Schrever: So you bring all that together, and I feel like it does represent a cocktail of risk factors for occupational stress. There really are not too many people who could do this job and do it well, and I think that the fact that we've got such a robust and fabulous world class judiciary in the country is something that we should really celebrate, because it is a really tough job.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. It's significant, this ... The more you're explaining there, it's blowing my mind, just what this role requires people to do.
Ellen Jackson: So we know why we should be taking this seriously and researching it and understanding it, and we know a bit more about who's involved now. Tell us a bit about what you've been finding as part of your research?
Carly Schrever: Okay. So, for my PhD, I approached five courts, five Australian courts, from the Magistrates' level up to the Appellate level, and everything in between. I approached the head of jurisdiction, and they all agreed for their courts to be involved.
Carly Schrever: So their are five courts. And from those courts 152 judges and magistrates participated in a survey that I pulled together. It was basically a survey using various standardized and validated measurement instruments for different kinds of stress, that had either been used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics with national mental health studies, or had been used in research on lawyer stress.
Carly Schrever: So measured things like, what we call non-specific psychological distress, so just a generalized feeling of distress, depressive and anxious symptoms, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, which is ... We can talk a bit more about that later maybe, but that's a kind of related concept to vicarious trauma, and also alcohol use.
Carly Schrever: And, then, for those who completed the survey, they could opt in to participate in an in-depth interview. I had hoped ... my supervisors said, "If you can 12 to 20 judges to do an interview, that's great. That's a really good sample size." I ended up with 60.
Ellen Jackson: Wow!
Carly Schrever: And I decided to do it with them all. And, to me, that says that this is an issue whose time has come.
Ellen Jackson: That's there's an interest there.
Carly Schrever: Yeah, there was an interest and a desire to be heard on this issue. It felt like it was the right time to be researching it.
Carly Schrever: So do you want me to just go through some of the headline findings that came out of the ...?
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. And before you do, I'm just going to say, because I know, anybody who's done research ... and I know we have psychologists and other researchers who listen in, but for those people who've never done research, the challenge of getting people to participate, especially busy people in big jobs, to participate. Not only to complete a questionnaire which is hard enough, but to get them to actually take the time to sit down in an interview. I mean, a) that's an amazing result for you. I think it really goes to the quality of the research that you're producing. But, yeah, I think that point about it being an issue that needs to be addressed, is just critical. So, yeah, I'm amazed at that response.
Carly Schrever: Yeah. I was really pleased with it.
Ellen Jackson: I think those who've done research are listening, and going, "Wow!"
Carly Schrever: I think its was helped by the fact that because of my work at the judicial college I was very well known to a lot of judicial officers, and trusted, and they understood where I was coming from with this research: I think that helped.
Carly Schrever: Also, there was very labor intensive recruitment process, so I basically got myself a speaking position at each of the internal courts' conferences, and delivered a presentation, and distributed the survey as part of that. So I really thought about how to maximize participation. But I ended up with an overall participation rate of 67%, which is really great.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. There's some great tips for any budding researchers out there, as to how they might approach it.
Carly Schrever: Yeah, a stitch in time.
Ellen Jackson: If you'd define some of the outcomes it would be fantastic.
Carly Schrever: Okay. Just to put it in context, when I undertook this research there'd already been about a decade of considerable research into the high levels of stress and mental ill health within the legal profession, and it begged the question as to what extent that extended to the judiciary. So using a couple of measures that had been used a lot in this research with the legal profession, so I used a measure that many psychologist listening in will know, the K10, the Kessler 10. And that's a measure of non-specific psychological distress. And I also used the DAS21, the depression, anxiety, and stress scale, 21, that had been used in a lot of the lawyer stress research as well.
Carly Schrever: Now, what I found was, that the scores on the K10 revealed that judges and magistrates levels of non-specific psychological distress, or rather their rates of non-specific psychological distress were elevated in the moderate to high range, compared to barristers, and compared to the general population. They were still slightly less than solicitors and law students. But when we looked at the stress in the very high range, so the extreme end of that scale, judicial officers' rates were considerably lower than all levels of the professional and the general population.
Carly Schrever: Then when I compared those results with the results from the DAS21, it was quite interesting. Previous research had shown that lawyers' levels, particularly of depression but also anxiety and stress on that scale, are about three times the national average. What I found with the judicial officers was that their rates of depression, anxiety and stress on that scale were dramatically lower than the legal profession, and at the extreme ends lower, also, than that general population.
Carly Schrever: So when you take those two pieces of data together, what you've got is you've got elevated high rates of non-specific psychological distress, but it's not translated to elevated rates of mental ill health among judicial officers, in the way that it is with lawyers. So it puts judicial officers in distinction, I guess, to the legal profession, you know, what's been found with the legal profession.
Carly Schrever: So that was the first thing. And I guess to extrapolate that further, what it says to me is that there is a stress problem among the Australian judiciary, but so far it's not translating to a widespread mental health problem, which is what we're seeing in the legal profession generally.
Ellen Jackson: So they're stressed but not unwell, necessarily?
Carly Schrever: Not unwell ... Yeah, that's right. Not unwell more than we would expect from a sample of the general population.
Ellen Jackson: Yep.
Carly Schrever: Yeah.
Carly Schrever: Now, when we look at some of the other things like burnout and secondary traumatic stress, now neither of these are diagnosable mental disorders, they're not in the DSM. But there's a lot of literature around them, in occupational mental health stuff.
Carly Schrever: So what we found with burnout. So burnout's understood to be a combination of three factors: high exhaustion; high levels of cynicism ... what's referred to as cynicism is doubting the meaning and significance of your work; and then reduced professional efficacy, so reduced feelings of being able to accomplish anything worthwhile at work. What we found was that judges and magistrates' levels of exhaustion and cynicism were kind of highish, they were sort of moderate; so 50% of them scored in the moderate to high range on both exhaustion and cynicism. But levels of professional efficacy were really high; so, good, that is. So only a small number of them showed dramatically reduced feelings of professional efficacy.
Carly Schrever: So what that says to me is that burnout is a significant risk factor for people in judicial office, but it seems to translate to experiences of exhaustion, emotional depletion, feelings of loss of meaning, loss of significance, rather than feelings of not being able to competently fulfill the role.
Ellen Jackson: Yep.
Carly Schrever: Yeah.
Ellen Jackson: They're feeling a bit wiped out.
Carly Schrever: Yes.
Ellen Jackson: Or a lot wiped out, maybe, but they're not feeling any less capable, or effective in what they do.
Carly Schrever: That's right. I kind of coined a little name for a typical profile that I found, which was high on exhaustion, high on cynicism, and high on professional efficacy. Professional efficacy is interpreted in a reverse direction to the other two.
Carly Schrever: The people who are high on all three, I called them the jaded performers. So there's a sense of kind of being over it, but still doing a really good job.
Ellen Jackson: Still fronting up, and getting it done.
Carly Schrever: Exactly. Exactly.
Carly Schrever: And the other point about burnout is that only a quarter of judicial officers in the study scored in the low risk range; so that's low exhaustion, low cynicism, and high professional efficacy. So three-quarters had a score on at least one of the sub-scales that indicates some level of burnout risk. So that's a significant proportion in my mind, yeah.
Carly Schrever: And then when we look at secondary traumatic stress, so secondary traumatic stress refers to the development of PTSD-like symptoms, but not as a result of experiencing a primary trauma, but as the result of constant exposure to the traumatic experiences of others. PTSD-like symptoms cluster into three categories: intrusion, so intrusion refers to intrusive thoughts, unwanted flashbacks, nightmares; avoidance, so wanting to avoid certain places, certain subject matter, certain feeling states; and then arousal, so it's kind of feeling keyed up, hypervigilant.
Carly Schrever: And it measures symptoms just in the one week prior to completing the survey, so it's a very time-limited measure. What we found that is that over 80%, so 83.6% of judges and magistrates endorsed at least one symptom of secondary traumatic stress in the one week prior to completing the survey. Almost 50% said they had trouble sleeping. 46.7% said they had intrusive thoughts about work. Almost 20% said they felt as if they had relived the traumas of some of the people coming before them. And just over 10% said that they had disturbing dreams about the people that came before them.
Carly Schrever: Also, the authors of this particular measure, the secondary traumatic stress scale, have reported a particular cut-off score that they think is significant in terms of indicating whether somebody perhaps should have formal assessment for PTSD. And 30%, just over 30% of judicial officers scored over that cut-off score. Now, that doesn't mean, of course, that 30% of judges and magistrates would meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD, but it is an indication of the level of symptomatology of this secondary traumatic symptomatology.
Ellen Jackson: It's having enough of an effect that they should be looking at how that might be addressed.
Carly Schrever: That's right.
Ellen Jackson: And it's really interesting for people who are listening who perhaps don't know much about PTSD, and I'm far from an expert, but even just from personal experience, I used to do assessments for work cover claims for stress, for a number of years. I used to travel around the countryside, which, again, kind of isolating gig, because it was just you on the road, and you go and meet ... And a lot of the people that I spoke to were police officers, and members of emergency services, and others who had dealt with some pretty gruesome stuff.
Ellen Jackson: And, for me, and I'm guessing this is sort of just relating a personal anecdote of what it's like to receive stories second hand, there are stories that I was told by people that are so firmly wedged in my brain that I will never forget them. Just moments, and these were just snippets of ... I mean, a police officer was talking about having to pick up body parts after the aftermath of suicides and trains ... Sorry, I shouldn't trigger more-
Carly Schrever: No, no. Absolutely.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah, those sorts of things. That I wasn't there, I didn't see it, but they described it to me and I can visualize it in my head, if that makes sense?
Carly Schrever: Absolutely. And once that image finds its way in, we need to find a way to process it so that it doesn't keep returning. Absolutely.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah, yeah. I did that for a few years, and most of the stories I heard were not that dramatic or significant, but I'm imagining for some of our judicial officers, they are actually, especially if they're working in some criminal areas, they're getting these stories every day.
Carly Schrever: That's right. So those sitting in crime are probably at much more significant risk of secondary traumatic stress than those sitting in other areas. Although, personal injuries, matters that can happen in the civil jurisdiction can be pretty distressing as well.
Carly Schrever: But, absolutely, if you think about the work of, say, a county court or a district court judge in this country, they're hearing all the serious sex offenses that are reported in society, many of which are perpetrated where the complainants are children. And a lot of that also includes child pornography cases, which occasionally involves or requires the judge and others in the courtroom to actually view some of that material.
Carly Schrever: Then you've got culpable driving matters, where somebody who has never had even a whiff of a criminal record does something a little bit silly in a car, kills somebody, and now really has to serve a pretty lengthy time in jail. Yeah, and everything ... I mean, there's homicide cases in the Supreme Court, and then the huge volume of family violence matters that come before the Magistrates' Court.
Carly Schrever: For judges and magistrates sitting in crime, they are dealing with a receiving ... and not only having to listen to, but having to think about process, evaluate, and then make decisions about that information. And they're doing that on a daily basis, so it's really high level and constant exposure.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. That couldn't help but have an effect.
Carly Schrever: Absolutely. And I even remember, when I was a judges' associate myself, in my mid-twenties, my judge was mostly a commercial judge, but he did do six months in crime while I was working with him. And I do remember, during those six months, that was the one time in my life, really, as an adult, where I really didn't feel safe being in my house alone at night. So it was just the beginning of a sort of vicarious trauma reaction, where all of a sudden the world was not feeling like the safe place that I thought it was.
Ellen Jackson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ellen Jackson: So there's a lot that our judicial officers are dealing with, and obviously it's having an effect, from the outcomes of the studies that you've done. And I'm interesting in the where to from here? What does this means in terms of helping, assisting? What does that mean in terms of occupational health? And, also, there's an intriguing little piece in there about what's stopping these people from falling over entirely?
Carly Schrever: Yeah. Yeah, it's a really, really good question.
Carly Schrever: Interestingly, and it's probably not entirely a coincidence, but my undertaking this research coincided with a real opening up of the discussion about judicial wellbeing, not only in Australia but overseas as well. And, so I found myself, by virtue of the fact that I've done this research in Australia, being invited to speak about this general topic in many locations around the world. So it's definitely become a topic that courts are grappling with. And it's fair to say that Australia, and particularly the state of Victoria, is leading the way, certainly in the region, in this Asia-Pacific region, but possibly even internationally. I'm yet to find a jurisdiction that is more progressed, in terms of the discussion around judicial stress and wellbeing, and addressing it.
Carly Schrever: So even though I haven't fully published and written up everything with the PhD yet, I have presented the findings to the judiciary, and so the courts are able to start making use of that. And, so, for example, a number of jurisdictions ... and I'll speak principally about Victoria here because that's where I work. A number of jurisdictions have convened Judicial Wellbeing Committees to think about how the courts can implement interventions and programs to better support judges and magistrates in the work that they do. And this involves thinking, not only about how judges and magistrates can be supported to manage the inevitable stress that they face in the role, but also whether courts can perhaps do things differently to prevent unnecessary exposure to certain kinds of stress. So there's, kind of, both the management and the prevention side of it, that the courts are working on.
Carly Schrever: So if we're thinking about the management side of it, obviously, for a judge or a magistrate, particularly if they're sitting in crime, but just across the board, there are many irreducible sources of stress and exposure to traumatic content that will always, have always been, will always be part of the role. It's not possible to make the job stress free. So this is where the courts are looking to what other disciplines do, other professions that also have a similarly high risk of exposure to that kind of stress and that kind of materials. And one of, I guess, the key interventions that's used in the mental health professions is regular proactive supervision. So where a professional will meet, usually on a monthly basis, sometimes maybe a little bit less than that, but with an appropriately skilled professional, not only to think about how they manage the work itself, but also how they can manage the emotional fallout from that work.
Carly Schrever: And, so, most of the jurisdictions in Victoria now have a court funded program for proactive ... we call it Proactive Counseling and Debriefing, with appropriately skilled mental health professionals. There's also a Judicial Officers' Assistance Program in Victoria now. So that's similar to an EAP, but specifically for judicial officers, so that there's always a number that somebody can call, 24/7, if needed.
Carly Schrever: And, then, we're thinking about other aspects of management as well, around whether a group process is a good idea: getting judges and magistrates together in small groups with a facilitator to talk about various things.
Carly Schrever: So that's one aspect of it. Then, thinking about the prevention side of it. This is really where structural and systemic and cultural change comes in. So the courts, they're pretty slow moving beasts. To do things differently within courts can have ramifications for how justice is performed, so it has to be thought about very carefully.
Carly Schrever: But, for example ... Well, there's many examples of this, but if we think about the County Court again, where judges sitting in crime there are hearing a huge amount of child sex offense matters, which understandably are among the most disturbing matters that come before the court. It's entirely possible, just because of the volume of that sort of work, that a judge sitting in crime could actually work for an entire year hearing nothing but sex offense matters, many of which will be child sex offense matters. What the court has started to look at is can we put a limit on the number of the most disturbing kinds of cases that a judge can hear in a row, before they do something else, for a bit of break before going back into it? So, kind of, simple triaging and paying attention to that sort of thing.
Carly Schrever: Also, at the Magistrates' Court level, one of the biggest stressors that was identified was work volume, the number of cases. Just to give people an indication, magistrates were frequently telling me that they sometimes have lists of upwards of 80 or 100 matters that they have to discharge in a day. Many of them complex. So when the Magistrates' Court started grappling with this issue, one of the things that the Chief Magistrate did, right at the outset, was say, "Okay. We need to make sure that our sitting times are manageable. That magistrates sit in court from 10 until 4, not 9 until whenever," which is sort of what had happened, and that the lists are calibrated so that that's possible, to make the job sustainable.
Ellen Jackson: Sorry, I was just going to say, even just the implic- I mean, I spend a lot of time talking about wellbeing at work, across different industries and different sized organizations, and one of the things that I'm really big on is just physical movement. Just being able to get up, being able to go outside, being able to take regular breaks, being able to stay physically active even if it's going to a walk at lunchtime. And if you're job just requires you to literally sit-
Carly Schrever: That's exactly right-
Ellen Jackson: ... and to sit in a closed room that doesn't have windows, and doesn't have an exposure to the outdoors, and doesn't give you the opportunity to go and just take a deep breath and stand under a tree for a minute-
Carly Schrever: Absolutely-
Ellen Jackson: ... that has massive implications for our stress levels and our wellbeing.
Carly Schrever: It does. Absolutely. Yeah. And judges and magistrates talk about that a lot. There's sort of a joke that there's five or 10 kilos that judges and magistrates put on, in the year or so after appointment, because they're not able to be as physically active as they were before. And particularly now with all the evidence coming out about the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, and how important it is to be getting up and moving a few times every hour. Judges and magistrates can't do that. They can't do that while they're in court. So it, I guess, increases the challenges to how do they add movement in, in other parts of their working life for the rest of their life.
Carly Schrever: And a lot of them now have standing desks in their chambers, so when they're not in court they're standing. There's actually one judge that I'm aware of who has taken it to the next level and got a walking desk. So he's got a standing desk with a treadmill underneath it, and when he's in his chambers working on a judgment, for example, he's strolling along. So providing creative movement.
Ellen Jackson: Yep. Problem solving?
Carly Schrever: Yeah, that's right! Finding creative ways of bringing in a bit more movement, which I think is excellent.
Ellen Jackson: Okay. It's great to hear that there are these kind of ... As you say, the time has come for your research, there's been a lovely coincidence of an openness to thinking about these issues, combined with your ability to present some evidence-based stuff, in order to really put preventative programs in place, and look at what are the structural and cultural changes that are required to keep people well in these positions.
Ellen Jackson: But that little question before about, what is stopping these people from falling over altogether? Because when we take all of that, kind of, in totality, and just look at it and think, "Wow! I don't even know how they survive this?" You did have some interesting findings from your research didn't you, into factors that keep people as well as they can be, or resilient at least?
Carly Schrever: Absolutely. I think it's a really good question. This was, I guess, one of the surprising aspects of the research, because while judges and magistrates were reporting high levels of non-specific distress, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, it's not translating into high levels of psychological ill health, as I said. And then alongside that, when I asked judges and magistrates what proportion of the time they experience stress at work, versus the proportion of the time they experience satisfaction and wellbeing at work, more of them reported experiencing satisfaction and wellbeing more of the time. And more of them reported experiencing stress less of the time.
Carly Schrever: So they're doing a very demanding, very stressful job, but finding it rewarding, satisfying, and that it gives them a great sense of meaning and purpose and wellbeing. The way that I interpret that ... Well, I guess there's a few factors before you even get to the interpretation of that, because also judges and magistrates, I think, about two-thirds of them said that they found judicial office, on the whole, less stressful than their previous careers in legal practice.
Carly Schrever: So I guess there's a few reasons as to what might be driving this difference. Firstly, is judicial work just quantitatively less stressful? Maybe it is, I don't know. Maybe there's a greater sense of autonomy, perhaps, that people have in the role of the judge and the magistrate. Being able to control the courtroom and set timelines and that sort of thing. Also, judges and magistrates are appointed from the senior successful ranks of the legal profession. So these are those that have survived the stressors and rigors of legal practice, and not only survived but thrived. So perhaps they are a subset of lawyers who are peculiarly suited to this sort of work.
Ellen Jackson: I was wondering whether there was kind of almost a self-selection component of this? That this was the people who had what it took to get to that point who then can carry that forward into a different set of challenges.
Carly Schrever: I think that's undoubtedly the case. Because those for whom the stresses of legal practice are simply too much, they leave early on in their career. And even for those who don't leave, but perhaps don't thrive, they're unlikely to be successful enough to get the tap on the shoulder, for judicial appointments that is.
Carly Schrever: I mean, the third factor, I think, also, is that we know from a lot of population mental health research, that midlife and late midlife is a period of peak mental stability. So that's, generally speaking, when mental health is at its most stable. And it's within that time, so from about 50 to 70, when judicial officers mostly serve their time in office, so that's another factor as well.
Ellen Jackson: Okay. Just a demographic factor?
Carly Schrever: Yeah. A demographic factor. If we were to break down the research on lawyer stress into age groups, we may well find that it's younger lawyers that are struggling the most, as they're adapting to the profession.
Carly Schrever: Then going back to how is it that judges and magistrates can have exposure to such difficult subject matter, have such demanding and responsible roles, such high workload, but be reporting high levels of satisfaction and wellbeing? And this is just a theory, I guess, at this stage, but I believe that for the intrinsic sources of stress in the role, so by intrinsic I mean those that are kind of part of the nature of the role, aspects of the role that are integral to the performance of the function. So having to control a courtroom involving people in a state of distress, having to perform the intellectually demanding task of weighing the evidence and arriving at a decision, having to absorb and evaluate evidence of a traumatic nature: these are undoubtedly stressful aspects of the job, but they are also the aspects of the job that make it meaningful, that drew people to legal practice in the first place, and that made those who were appointed to the judicial office, made them want to take up that appointment.
Carly Schrever: And judges tell me this, there's a wonderful feeling of purpose, and also professional pride, at times, in being able to be that force of rationality, that force of calm, that force of justice, in the middle of the crises that life throws up for people. That's very meaningful, the sense of performing a really important social function.
Carly Schrever: So I think, in a sense, it's almost like many of the stressors are one side of the coin, and on the other side of the coin are the satisfactions of the role; so the two go together.
Ellen Jackson: So there's a wonderful positive psychology overlay-
Carly Schrever: Absolutely-
Ellen Jackson: ... when we look at the models of wellbeing and what we're really starting to understand contributes to wellbeing and resilience, those factors of meaning and purpose. I'm guessing there's probably a bit of engagement and flow that's involved in being able to be intellectually and cognitively stimulated, and get deep into a task, or an idea, or a decision that does get that kind of engagement and flow, so they become components of wellbeing?
Carly Schrever: And arriving at a solution. Yeah.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. And that there counter-play against the stressors.
Carly Schrever: Absolutely. That's something that really struck me, too, is that it really speaks that positive psychology message, which is that our wellbeing is much more a function of the meaning and purpose that we derive from our lives, than just emotional ease and pleasure.
Ellen Jackson: Which does have real implications for how we look at occupational stress, doesn't it? Rather than trying to take the stressors away, which I think has been the traditional ... You know, when we look at it from a physical safety approach, "Well, if we take all the risks away then we're safe." But it's not kind of how it works with psychology, it's not how it works with our wellbeing ... emotional and psychological wellbeing, that taking the risks away isn't enough, it doesn't equate to wellbeing?
Carly Schrever: That's exactly right. No, yeah. It's important of course to take away unnecessary risks. But really where the wellbeing is going to flow from in these complex roles in particular, is where judges are assisted to build upon the meaning and satisfaction that's inherent in doing that work. And, also, to find connections with each other in that as well. And that's where some of those management strategies that I talked about before really come in.
Ellen Jackson: Yep. Yep. Bring that in as well. So there's two sides to it: there's production plus the promotion of the wellbeing factors.
Carly Schrever: That's right. And if I can just add one point in there, because when I was conducting the 60 interviews, and I asked judicial officers, "What are the key sources of stress?," interestingly, the things that came up, the things that were front of mind, the first thing that people generally mentioned was workload. Then the things that people mentioned were what I call the kind of organizational, cultural, systemic sources of stress, that are extrinsic to the role. So they're not necessary for the performance of the judicial function, but they're within the judicial working environment. Things like perceptions of inequity in work ethic and work distribution within the court environment, difficulties between the administrative and the judicial arm of the court, issues with how the media might treat decisions, those sorts of things.
Carly Schrever: And when I reflect upon that, I think, okay, it's interesting that they were front of mind, because when we think about it those sources of stress, those that are extrinsic to the task of judging, don't carry with them any meaning, they're pure irritations. Whereas, the intrinsic forms of stress are also meaningful. So judges and magistrates, when they thought about stress they weren't thinking about those intrinsic features of the role because they accepted those, it was what they signed up for. It was these unexpected cultural, environmental factors that really got to them. Yeah.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. Which is such an interesting way to conceptualize it, isn't it? This intrinsic versus extrinsic to the role, because I think we can all relate to that. We'll put up with a lot that relates to our tasks and what does give us meaning and purpose, because it gives us meaning and purpose, because it's what we signed up for, it's part of the gig. But the other stuff, that's just annoying.
Carly Schrever: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And you can't make meaning from that.
Ellen Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Carly Schrever: Yeah, that's right.
Ellen Jackson: Carly, this has been such an insightful and interesting conversation on a number of levels. I've certainly learnt a lot about the role of our judiciary and the system they're operating within. And I kind of felt like I knew a bit beforehand, so you've expanded my mind considerably there. As well as giving us some thoughts about some of these interesting things like meaning and purpose, and where it does fit in with our wellbeing and our ability to withstand stress, across all of our different careers and roles and the work that we do. And, probably, our home lives as well. So thank you very much for that.
Ellen Jackson: Where can people find out more? Or, where could they even ... You're doing the speaking circuit at the moment. Where might they be able to hear you, or see you, or find out a little more about what you're work is?
Carly Schrever: Okay. I haven't set up my own website yet, that's something I'll do on the other side of the PhD. But there's information about the research on the Judicial College of Victoria's website, under the Judicial Wellbeing tab. And, also, I've got a fair bit of information about it on my LinkedIn profile, as well: it's under Carly Shrever.
Ellen Jackson: Yep.
Carly Schrever: And, yeah, I mean, I think this research has kind of launched a conversation about judicial stress. And, as I say, it's equally relevant ... Yeah, it's very relevant to practicing lawyers. And then also what I'm curious about now is to what extend does this research bear upon how we think about those in other high level positions? You know, politicians for example, people in visible roles where they're having to make difficult decisions, senior medical practitioners, so that's another question that I have as well. Yeah.
Ellen Jackson: You've got a whole career ahead of you just on this topic!
Carly Schrever: We'll see! We'll see!
Ellen Jackson: Carly, I'll pop all of the links to ... Yeah, your LinkedIn profile, some of the ... I know there's been a bit of press recently, because you've just released this first round of research outcomes. So I'll link to some of those articles, certainly to the Judicial College's Wellbeing, information there, for people to be able to find out more. And you'll have to let us know when that website goes live and we can make sure that we spread the word about that as well.
Carly Schrever: Sure. I'd love to. Thank you.
Ellen Jackson: Thank you again. I really enjoyed it. I know I've learnt a lot. I'm sure our listeners have learnt a lot too. And, yeah, we might think differently when we decide that we see a bit of media about our judicial officers, and what they've done. Perhaps a little context might help create a little bit of empathy?
Carly Schrever: Yeah. And, look, it's been a real pleasure.
Carly Schrever: And I think people often don't think about the stress experienced by judges and magistrates, because they are in such privileged positions in society. And it's certainly not seeking sympathy from the public, but it is good to remember that these are human beings, fulfilling a really difficult role, and they're subject to all the same human reactions that anyone would have. Yeah.
Ellen Jackson: And we're all just human after all?
Carly Schrever: That's right. Yeah.
Carly Schrever: Thanks Ellen.
Ellen Jackson: Thanks again Carly.