I wrote recently about judicial bullying. There were many reasons I did not give details of my experience, but it was partly to protect the bully. We all know that bullying is a sign that something may be going on for the bully. They are often unhappy themselves for one reason or another. Though it affected me deeply I have always instinctively felt the behaviour I experienced was not typical of the judge who meted it out.
Wellbeing at the bar is recently being taken very seriously. This is a good thing. I commend the dedicated wellbeing site to anyone working in the field – not just the bar. At the family bar Cyrus Larazideh QC has been heavily involved in this work, and his account of his own personal professional experiences at the bar (given through presentations, one of which was delivered at the FLBA conference last month and reduced many in the audience to tears), is a stark reminder that all of us – lawyers, judges, social workers – are at risk of vicarious trauma through a toxic combination of difficult events in our personal lives (divorce, bereavement, overwork) and the chronic impact of the traumatic material we are exposed to and emotional content of our work. Judges who bully have all the pressures that we have, but added to that is the fact that the buck stops with them. We can at least go home and unburden ourselves (to a degree) by repeating the mantra that we did the best job within our power, and ultimately it was the judge’s decision not ours. The judge has no such psychological fallback – although she can tell herself that she too has done the best with the available information and resource, its still their call.
I’ve been contacted by a number of journalists asking if I wanted to talk more about my experience of bullying. My answer was no. I’ve said my piece and my point was about the impact of the bullying. It wasn’t about retribution or naming or blaming, merely about identifying a harmful phenomenon. A phenomenon that is symptomatic of a wider problem. The pressure of work for all judges is pretty intolerable these days, but for those dealing with work of a traumatic nature, which care work often is, the risks to emotional health and wellbeing must be much higher. I don’t know if any statistics have been gathered and published but my impression is that judicial sickness absence is rising markedly. It is entirely unsurprising.
It is striking that we see and note the high rate of burnout in child protection social work every day – social workers are on long term sick leave (we all know what that means) or they move up the management tree to maintain sufficient distance to keep their sanity. In doing so sometimes they lose their connection and ability to empathise with the individual families they are working with, that is so vital to good social work practice. We can all spot those who have brought the shutters down to save themselves. But we aren’t so good at reflecting on how the same issues may affect other professions working with traumatised and dysfunctional families. Lawyers don’t go into the unsafe, dirty houses from where children are removed, but we meet the families, hear their stories, we watch the interviews of abused children, we see the xrays of broken bones, the post mortem images. We witness the devastation when the placement order is made – even where it is blindingly obvious that this is the right and only safe option for a child (which is certainly not in all cases) a loving parent’s life is still devastated in that moment, in that court room. We are not immune. And the day I become immune is probably the day I should give up the day job.
The extent to which we become desensitized in our work has been brought home to me recently when I joined various Facebook groups where parents go to seek support when involved with family courts or with social services. We see clients at court, when they are trying their hardest to put on a brave face and behave calmly and rationally. They don’t always succeed, but this is their best stage managed self. We don’t see them in the wee small hours when they are desperate and confused and willing to ask anyone they can find on the internet for help and advice, or venting about everything that has befallen them. But when you join those groups you see those parents do just that again and again with alarming regularity and with familiar themes recurring and recurring. Laying bear their rawest emotion, their fear and their trauma, displaying (often unknowingly) their vulnerability and lack of insight into their own problems and the mechanics of what is happening around their family. To see so many people so lost and so confused and so despairing that the family courts can help them is profoundly disturbing and upsetting, and it has rocked my emotional boat. It unsettles the internal narrative that we are setting the world right one client at a time, nudging clients and judges in the right direction for the benefit of the client and their child. The idea that we are making any difference at all or getting anything right is seriously challenged by this stream of people whose experience is just at odds with it. We are a tiny boat and they are the refugees bobbing up and down in ocean. We cannot fit more than a few in our boat and most of those we drag on board will be half drowned anyway. If we capsize we are all done for – so don’t take on more than you can, keep the work life balance balanced. I have to ignore most of them.
It doesn’t even matter if their understanding of the law or the advice that they receive is howlingly wrong or ridiculous. It is the sheer volume. If this many people experience the law as unjust how can we insist it is just? Like throwing them an invisible life jacket.
I haven’t left these groups, but I may turn off notifications. From time to time I venture in to respond to one or two, to offer some pointer or explanation that I think might be useful. But I feel as if I am failing in doing so.
Over the years I’ve realised that talking about my work through blogging is reparative, it helps with the management of vicarious trauma, it helps me to process what I do, its purpose, and I think it helps me to carry on doing it without bringing that shutter down. But here on the blog I can choose what topics to write about and when, I can control what I tackle and what I keep in a box. Back in the Facebook groups it is like an unstoppable tsunami of grief and anger and it is almost overwhelming.
I have written an article for The Transparency Project about the Facebook groups for Family Law Journal – forthcoming in January 2018. Once published by Jordans the publishers have kindly given permission for it to be published on The Transparency Project website.