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  • Helen Conway

Guest post: the loneliness of the judiciary

Helen Conway is a former solicitor and barrister who was also a District Judge for ten years. She now offers one-to-one supervision and coaching for family lawyers, training courses and conflict resolution meetings. She tweets @studiconway

Trigger warning: discussion of death

Judge Guy Andrew was the sole Judge in the Townsville Registry of the Federal Circuit Court in North Queensland. Appointed full time in early 2019 he had faced a high workload as a sole Judge. After some difficult days in court he was given a transfer to Brisbane where more mentoring and counselling was available. Sadly, despite this late intervention, he went into the bush without his phone or wallet, sparking a massive search. He was found dead five days later.

The response of the profession was to cite not only the stressful nature of the job and the crushing workloads but the loneliness of the job.

Loneliness is not the same as isolation. As a judge, I felt painfully lonely even as I was overwhelmed with the number of people I interacted with in a day. Nor is loneliness about having a lot of time alone, something which can actually recharge those of us who are introverted. It’s not even solely about the lack of physical contact that we are now all suffering because of coronavirus.

It’s about not feeling connected, seen and truly heard. Or, as a recent government report says, it is “a subjective and unwelcome feeling which results from a mismatch in the quality and quantity of social relationships we have and those we desire.”

Anyone can feel lonely, even (or actually, especially) in a crowd, but the judiciary has specific characteristics that make it particularly lonely. Once appointed, one leaves the social networks built up over a whole career and starts again. You lose your name, now to be greeted by staff and advocates who encounter you on your lunch-time sandwich run as ‘Judge’. You sit elevated, often dressed differently; all this deliberate pomp intended to distinguish you from those in the well of the court.

People enter your court all day. But you work alone, bearing the brunt of the decisions solely on your own shoulders. There is no team of associates and assistants, no asking Counsel for an opinion. No formal mentoring scheme for full-time Judges.

The conduct rules acknowledge the right to free speech and do not therefore ban the use of social media by Judges, but they do impose restrictions on its use. Some Judges eschew it totally; some lurk, able to observe the camaraderie of legal twitter but not to participate. Others use it, often hidden behind a false or maiden name, monitoring and second-guessing carefully every word they post, fretting about who to connect with. Such careful, compliant usage can still, in my experience, result in informal pressure from more nervous colleagues and formal pressure from the top. The effect of this is to isolate you even from non-work communities.

When I posted on LinkedIn about Judge Andrew’s death, a delightful junior lawyer from Australia contacted me to say if they thought a Judge was alone they would knock on a Judge’s door and invite them for lunch. That no doubt would be received as a very kind and welcome gesture. However, early in my career I saw one lonely Judge accept such an invitation and then heard about the censorious actions of their senior Judiciary who talked openly about the foolishness of the lunching Judge.

It is fair to say that there is a feel of a tight knit ‘club’ that embraces you once you gain an appointment, a ‘one of us’ feel. But that can turn out to be - disappointingly - a membership of a collection of other lone people. It is hard to find time to discuss your deep emotional responses and troubles with colleagues who are both harassed themselves and dependent on you to ‘keep your end up’ and manage the overload of the courts. (I have to say I was much less lonely in a small court where we had the time and inclination to build deep, trusting personal relationships than I was in what are now becoming the more common big court centres.)

Senior Judges who might have wisdom they can pass down also hold managerial roles that make open confession inappropriate. In the larger courts, social events are often arranged by Judges but ‘down the pub’ is not the right venue or occasion for frank talk about the vicissitudes of the job or your personal life

Judges are required to be separate, above, detached. Divorced from the world of the advocates. There is good reason for this. It helps to maintain the perception of judicial independence. (It’s much less arguable that it is required for the actual independence of Judges given the use of part-time judiciary who are not at all separate from the profession).

It may even make it easier for advocates to do their jobs. I once, in the depth of my loneliest days on the bench, came across an advocate who used to instruct me and with whom I’d had a form of friendship. We had not seen each other in the six or seven years since I had been appointed. I asked if she would like a catch up drink. “No,” was the firm and honest answer. “You are ‘Judge’ now. I need to respect that if I am to be in front of you.” I know it was not personal (she willingly connected after I left the judiciary) and it was very professional of her, but it produced a crushing loneliness and sense of rejection at a time of need that drew tears and a wrenching feeling in my stomach. I learned not to ask anyone else.

However, the problem with a job in which you are required to create and maintain your own conditions of separation is that loneliness is highly associated with mental illness in an interlinked cause and effect way. Loneliness, whatever your job, causes you to feel ill; illness has a stigma so it produces more loneliness. It is highly associated with both depression and social anxiety. Loneliness makes you doubt that you are acceptable and the resulting lack of confidence and lack of esteem can make you reject the few social opportunities that come along, thus starting a downward cycle. The lack of confidence is doubled by the fact that you have left a senior position doing a job you do well to start something very different that requires an startling learning curve and is performed entirely without feedback.

A recent report by the Campaign to End Loneliness sets out a number of ways to combat loneliness. The suggestions (which I commend to you) turned out to be some of those that I had found by living this the hard way: CBT, mindfulness, positive psychology. I would add that finding a way to express myself obliquely through art and finding a faith community where I had people who got to know me for who I really was, would hold a confidence, give me time and really hear my inner cry was crucial.

But the one thing that made the most terrific difference was finally, after much time off ill with mental ill-health, being provided with a professional with whom to discuss my work experiences. Supervision (not in regulatory sense but meaning an ongoing, close, reflective supportive conversation about work) is either mandatory or good practice in all the other helping professions. I highly recommend the formation of that kind of relationship, ideally with a therapist or coach with knowledge of the profession. (To get a feel for how it can work read supervising therapist Chris Mills’ book The Case that really got to me) or download my free e-book ) both of which contain case studies.

Hi - it's Malvika here! If you enjoyed reading this post, Helen and I have recorded a podcast for Women in Family Law on managing mental health in lockdown. Click here to find out more.

All views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and not necessarily those of Stiff Upper Lip.

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