By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
There are calls for a review of the workplace health and safety of members of the judiciary, with the recent deaths of two Victorian magistrates raising concerns about their mental wellbeing.
The sudden passing of magistrate Stephen Myall just weeks ago, and the death of another magistrate earlier this year, has placed a focus on the pressures of the role.
Magistrate Myall took his own life at the age of 59, and his bereaved wife believes it was a result of the continual burden of case loads. It was not unusual for the Magistrate to deal with 90 short matters in a day and, like many others in the role, had the added pressure of media scrutiny which, according to his wife, contributed to his feelings of hopelessness and despair.
In the weeks before the tragedy, Magistrate Myall decided to postpone court hearings for a teenager who allegedly kicked a police officer in the head – a decision which drew harsh criticism from the media.
It was reported that the Melbourne teenager faced fresh charges after avoiding a conviction over a Boxing Day assault at the Highpoint Shopping Centre in Melbourne’s west. However, as a passionate believer that the court system had the power to help people turn their lives around, Magistrate Myall adjourned the youth’s court date to enable him to complete his year 12 exams.
The Magistrate’s widow says the media and public reaction to his decision caused him great angst.
Health and wellbeing initiatives being implemented
Late last year, it was announced that a health and wellbeing committee was being established to help magistrates cope with stress, with many struggling under the strain of an unrelenting caseload as well as the trauma associated with hearing confronting evidence relating to violence and sexual abuse cases.
With morale amongst Victorian magistrates described as being at an all-time low, particularly as they mourn the passing of two colleagues in such a short space of time, Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen has made a desperate plea for state funding for the appointment of new magistrates, and greater funding for support services, to reduce caseloads and associated delays in the justice system while ensuring members of the judiciary can cope with the pressures of the role.
Under a new proposal, Victorian Magistrates will be given four days of leave each year
to seek counselling. They are being encouraged to take one day per quarter to access counselling, and to set aside one day per month to deal with administrative work and take a respite from the rigours of the courtroom.
However, the question is whether this is sufficient given the pressure they are under, or whether it could just contribute to stress by adding to delays.
In the 2015-2016 financial year, Victoria’s 120 magistrates sat through more than 680,000 criminal court dates. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those on the bench to have a daily load of more than 50 cases.
Currently, Victorian Magistrates have access to a 24/7 confidential counselling service, wellbeing programs and online resources, and the Chief Magistrate’s requests for more support services, and more magistrates, are being considered in the state government’s budget for the next financial year, beginning July.
Mental health is an issue across the legal profession
But it is not just Magistrates who suffer from the pressures of the profession. Research reveals that across the legal profession, mental illness is a problem that continues to be insufficiently addressed – with solicitors and barristers having to deal with extremely difficult and stressful situations, working long hours with little respite.
Research has consistently found that lawyers are in the highest risk category for mental health issues, and recent studies suggest that judges and magistrates are particularly at risk.
Statistics suggest that one-third of solicitors and one-fifth of barristers suffer disability and distress due to depressio. And given the competitive nature of the profession, many see such issues as a weakness and refuse to seek help, preferring instead to suffer in silence. Some even self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs.
While mental health programmes can go some way towards helping those who are at risk, it seems that a cultural change is required across the board, enabling the creation of a more inclusive environment where professionals are empowered to help each other, rather than the status quo which often encourages people to act solo and pit themselves against others.
There is also a greater need for lawyers to take responsibility for balancing their career ambitions with a healthy lifestyle, that includes time away from work.