Me too – judicial bullying

I’m conflicted about #Metoo. I did post “me too” on Facebook (friends only). I didn’t post it on twitter. But I paused and thought before saying so. I felt that, since I know sexual harassment of women is real, pernicious and normalised this was an important moment to support. BUT…

I don’t feel like a victim, and I want no part of the victim culture which other hashtag campaigns like #webelieve have signified.

I have felt a little as if the campaign has inadvertently taken on some of the characteristics of the thing it opposes. The fact that I felt I ought to type those words, is down to pressure – the same peer pressure that ruled our lives at school. I wondered to myself yesterday, only half joking, how long it would take for someone to hashtag women who refused to join in as #frigid, in exactly the way it happened when we were at school (before hashtags, the internet and handheld devices). Mostly you were called frigid by boys. Sometimes by other girls.

But anyway, I said #metoo. Not because of the pressure, but in spite of it. I didn’t say it on twitter because it all felt as if it was jumping the shark.

I’ve thought a lot these past weeks (and argued with others) about what we should be telling our children (boys and girls) about these things. At my school sexual touching by boys was normalised, unremarked upon by teachers. Bra straps undone, skirts pulled up, bums pinched. We girls said stop it – and giggled. Looking back I want to kick myself, but in our behaviour we encouraged it. Looking back I think our parents and our teachers failed the girls and they failed the boys. We did what was normal, we did what our peers did. Having your bra strap pinged (even if you didn’t want it) meant being accepted, it meant not being called frigid. That is where it begins isn’t it? Compliance. Learnt passivity. Everyone else is doing it, so…

So I understand that the “trivial” stuff matters, that it isn’t just “serious” stuff like rape that “counts” here (and I note that some male politicians who should know better treat the serious stuff as if it is trivial. Shame on Michael Gove this morning). But nonetheless I found myself searching my memories for my “best” #metoo. “I must have one”, was the half formed thought in my mind. Actually, I do have one. More than one. But these are not experiences I think and worry about every day. I am lucky not to have experienced an assault or harassment event I consider traumatic or damaging to me. And so I was reluctant to be seen to claim some equivalent status with a woman (or man) who has experienced sexual harassment or assault far more serious than I. In truth, my relatively minor brushes with sexual danger or unwanted attention have been just that – trivial and not particularly traumatic (although they do extend beyond the bra strap).

But still, had it not been for a very recent experience of unwanted sexual touching on a train I would not have felt it appropriate to say it. Here again, this was assault which I reported to the police to protect other women, not because I was particularly upset or hurt (I was mostly cross that I had felt paralysed and unable to act – my husband said “Why didn’t you say loudly “please stop pressing your penis against my body”?”, as if it was that easy. The truth is I was worried at what his and other people’s reactions might be if I did and I froze). So I don’t feel particularly entitled to the #metoo hashtag. And I don’t want people’s praise for “bravely” telling my story about a sad little man who isn’t going to affect my life. And I worry a little that hashtags can become a desired status to claim, that devalues the original purpose.

So yeah, I’m conflicted about #metoo.

So why am I posting this?

Because #metoo has a different resonance for me right now that isn’t to do with sexual harassment or assault.

It’s always been something of a surprise to me that I haven’t really experience sexual harassment at the bar. Sexism, yes. Harassment, no. My sense when I was a young(ish) pupil and baby tenant was that my (relatively unusual) married status offered some protection, like an invisible forcefield. I was very aware that the behaviour of certain men changed when they found out I was married. I didn’t wear my wedding ring at work for some years – at the time I articulated the rationale as being that it was nobody’s bloody business, but in truth I had a sense that female pupils weren’t meant to be married. And although I was ready for the inappropriate behaviour, it never came.

But the emergence of the #metoo campaign has coincided with something else : a spirited discussion on social media and now the legal press about judicial bullying, prompted by the tweets of Mary Aspinall Miles, and subsequently Jo Delahunty QC. And for me both these issues have become intertwined. I want to explain why – because although sexual assault is of course not equivalent with judicial bullying, there are some striking parallels which have made me rethink my response to the #metoo campaign. Most obviously, sexual assault is about power as much as it is about sex. And film producers are to aspiring actors what judges are to lawyers. What they say goes. My experience of judicial bullying has helped appreciate why it is that women don’t often call it out. Because they are powerless, paralysed, silenced.


What’s been emerging in this discussion about judicial behaviour is a consensus that it is not okay for a judge to be a bully. And that something needs to change. Unlike the very public humiliation and downfall of Harvey Weinstein, these refrains about judicial bullying are not centred around an identifiable scapegoat or totemic bad guy. They can’t be. Confidentiality, ethics and brute reality prevent their identification. It’s important also to recognise that this is not all judges. Most judges are courteous and tolerant and appreciative of the work of lawyers. A very few judges are bullies all of the time, some occasionally slip through pressure or personal circumstance. Both lawyers and judges are under increasing pressure, and just as we tell our children that bullying at school is often borne of the insecurities of the bully, I suspect that this issue is at least in part exacerbated by the immense pressure on our judges. It is a tough job, and judges are only human. That doesn’t make bullying excusable but it’s important to say nonetheless. But here I’m more interested in the impact than the cause. Because I also suspect that some judges do not realise that what they say and how they behave affects those who appear before them long after they leave the courtroom.

Prompted by the recent online discussion of this issue, I found myself (privately) telling my own horror story of serious and sustained judicial bullying to a colleague this week. I’ve experienced shouting judges, rude judges, very demanding judges (haven’t we all). All of that I can withstand, it comes with the job and is water off the proverbial. But only once have I had an experience that I would call bullying (though I have seen the impact of chronic bullying on others). It was a while ago now, though recent enough for me to have been surprised and ashamed that as a lawyer with more than a decade’s war stories I still found it so debilitating and so undermining of my confidence as a lawyer.

I’m not going to tell that story here, because it is intimately bound up with the private details of my client’s case, and because in my heart I hope the judge in question was acting out of character and regrets their behaviour and would be mortified to read of it. But also because it is actually too hard a story to relive. Having done so earlier this week I was unexpectedly right back there, a gibbering wreck, wracked with guilt for breaking down at court, for failing a client (I didn’t but at the time I felt that I had), humiliated at my inability to cope and the treatment of me in front of peers and clients, powerless to make it stop because the judge had complete control. What I have realised is that I felt all those things that survivors of abuse describe feeling, all those things that the victims of sexual predators feel : shame, guilt, powerlessness, a crisis of confidence. I thought I was over it, but talking about it I was right back there. Paralysed again. And so it seems these things have a lasting effect. None of my experiences of sexual harassment had that impact on me. But I can see how a more serious assault might.

So I do sort of understand #metoo, although it is undeniably vulnerable to distortion and a sort of collective hysteria. I don’t quite know how it will help to put this out there, just as I can’t yet quite work out how naming judicial bullying as a problem will help if we can’t make it stop – but instinctively I know that saying #metoo to judicial bullying is the right thing to do. There are I suspect many others with less of a voice than me, who are less senior than me, who are not just paralysed when they voluntarily relive these experiences, but who live them every day in their minds eye and who might not yet be brave enough to say #metoo. But I am big enough and ugly enough to say it on their behalves so that they know it is not just them. And so we can all try a little harder to be kind whilst we are being firm.

And for anyone experiencing this – do please talk to colleagues at the bar for support. I have found a trusted few have been invaluable. You know who you are. x

22 thoughts on “Me too – judicial bullying

  1. Everone has a mouth and women use their mouths as often and sometimes even more often than men.
    I was taught at school when about 8 years of age that “sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you” ;Not entirely accurate because words can hurt your feelings even if they leave your body intact.
    Nevertheless there are too many cry babies about complaining about verbal abuse or even more pitiful “cyber abuse” ! Switch that effing computer off dear and don’t read phone messages; Cyber bullying will then cease for you I promise !
    Yes but what about judicial bullying and poor Lucy nearly in tears? Our hearts go out to you Lucy when naughty judges are rude to you .Just grin and bear it as it will all come out right in the end……………

  2. Hi Lucy,

    A very good read. Thank you.

    A fear of being socially rejected is still stronger than a fear of saying out loud: “I don’t want you to do it to me anymore” and taking an action to get out of such a situation.
    Nevertheless, there are thousands of women who have achieved their professional goals without belonging to #metoo group.
    Throughout my life, I have made some bad decisions too, but years ago I understood that it was me and only me who was responsible for all of them. There was nobody with a gun pointed at my head telling me what decision to make.
    When making a decision, we always consider what we are going to compromise. Something for something…
    All these #metoo women HAD a choice. You’ve had a choice. I’ve had a choice. We are not slaves. Or, are we? If yes, then, who are our masters?

    It’s so easy to blame others for our weakness when we had compromised our dignity for something what [as we thought so] could have facilitated our life.
    Thus, instead of having ‘an easier life’ – we end up with an inner shame and hidden disrespect to ourselves wondering why our self-esteem is not that one we’ve dreamed about.

    All the best and looking forward to reading your next article:)

  3. Thank you for this brave and important piece, Lucy. I have seen judges bullying barristers in court on many occasions, and have done my best to support colleagues traumatised by their experiences. The problem is real, and extraordinarily difficult to address. There simply is no way for a barrister to let a judge know that their behaviour has crossed the line. I’m not sure what we do about this. But there ought to be a safe way for barristers to raise the issue, so that heads of division could be alerted to judges who have a persistent problem with this. It us particularly troubling to see some of the worst offenders promoted to very senior positions.

  4. Please do not forget the issue of Judges harassing Judges … this happens way too often especially in the towers of the RCJ. An example. A leading Family Judge [edited] no action taken. Told he would be retiring soon, it was a well known issue with him and that careers were at risk if a fuss was made. Complicate …

  5. Ian Joseph’s comments scream
    “I am one of those bullies.” I’m glad I don’t live in his household where the next generation of misogynists have been or are being encouraged. Read Cordelia Fine’s magnificent and funny Testosterone Rex. It starts with men like this.

    • Bullies pick on people weaker than themselves, this isn’t the same as misogyny and bullying is not an exclusively male domain by any means. Some people use the allegation of misogyny as a bullying tactic.

      • You make an assumption that the judge who bullied me was male. It doesn’t matter whether they were male or female which is why I have not specified. My post was not about misogyny but about bullying. I have seen bullying by both male and female judges and of both male and female advocates. I have been contacted privately since writing this post by both male and female advocates who have told me that my experience is very similar to their own and that the impact upon them personally and professionally has been profound. Although of course litigants are not in a position of power in relation to the judge, nor are lawyers – even if they are in a more powerful position than a litigant (on some levels at least) a judge is still in a position of significant power over a lawyer.

  6. I suggested to the RCJ, some time ago, as part of the MKF consultation exercise, that judges ought to undergo psychometric testing prior to appointment. The range of judicial conduct that I’ve witnessed mirrors your own experience.

    On the positive side, I’ve seen judges working on behalf of litigants to get behind the legal professionals’ presentation glitz, with a degree of empathy that sets a high bar for their peers.

    On the downside, I’ve seen judges with tendencies that are borderline psychopathic, apparently revelling in abusing their authority. In one notable recent case, I witnessed a judge haranguing a respondent for the best part of an hour, despite that judge having written evidence confirming that the respondent was extremely vulnerable and had previously gone through a breakdown.

    As if that wasn’t bad enough, too often I’ve seen judges willfully ignoring important evidence in an attempt to keep the case load pipeline moving. They do so in circumstances where they know that, for the majority of litigants, it has become increasingly difficult to fund an appeal. That’s not just abuse, it’s tantamount to perverting the course of justice.

  7. When I was a trainee I had the White Book thrown at me by a Master in the High Court I managed to catch it before it hit me in the face. It happened in front of loads of other lawyers waiting for their applications to be heard. I’m sure it contributed to me doing little advocacy as a solicitor.

  8. edited

  9. Judges and Counsel have a highly privileged position, often they are overworked and stressed, but when they act in a way that is goes too far and causes real unfairness we need to call them out. As you know I did this when I saw the result of a Judge’s behaviour, which spanned three hearings, on my client. It wasn’t easy to get the case to the CA, taking over 18m. I hope it was worth it.

    • Ah yes, I remember reading the judgment in that case, Joanna. I remember thinking that you were admirably cool on the transcript.

  10. Lucy I’m very sorry you feel you’ve been bullied in your professional role while you were being paid, but I think we’re forgetting something here, if judges behave like this towards lawyers and get away with it, how are they behaving with Litigants in Person, particularly in the Family Court where there’s no witnesses to their behaviour and the parties have no idea what they should expect?

    The problem is not confined to judges, it pervades the legal system where both solicitors and barristers will try all sorts of underhand tricks to get their way, not necessarily in their client’s best interest. Let’s not forget where judges come from, this is cultural as well as individual behaviour.

    Obviously this isn’t confined to the legal profession, it will happen anywhere certain individuals are given power over others without oversight. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    One other point I would make is the responsibility we all have to speak up, to stand up to the bullies and call them out. Evil can only succeed when good people do nothing.

    Unfortunately the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office is no more than a white washing exercise, the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority are only interested in fraud and the Bar Standards Committee, well what can I say, the behaviour has to be bordering on criminal for them to be interested.

    A proper system of independent, random observation needs to be used, non-lawyers sitting in on hearings to see what goes on. Best done by CCTV where the judges didn’t know whether they were being watched or not, keep them on their toes.

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