Call to weed out self-medicating and bullying judges
COURTROOMS are at risk of becoming a "bullies' pulpit" and a judicial commission is urgently needed to weed out stressed judges self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, says the outgoing president of the state's peak legal body.
Veteran criminal lawyer Bill Potts also issued a stark warning that overworked judges and magistrates in Queensland will burn out without more resources.
Speaking exclusively to The Courier-Mail, the outgoing Queensland Law Society president said there was currently no way to dismiss rogue judges or those without a "judicial temperament".
He called for a judicial commission for the Federal courts and Queensland courts that could appoint, educate and sanction judges and magistrates.
"It's almost impossible to dismiss judges and let's face it, judges like the rest of the community can suffer from frailties and mental health issues," Mr Potts said.
"Judges can get depressed and find themselves incapable of writing judgments. Sometimes they drink too much or take solace in self-medication because of the stress of the job."
Mr Potts' comments come after several Queensland magistrates and judges have come under fire for their conduct during the past year.
"One of the reasons why a judicial commission is so important is because being a judicial officer is not just about legal knowledge … it's about having a proper judicial temperament, which includes courage and certainty … Having a judicial temperament is above all about patience and allowing people to have a say," he said.
"I can understand a judge struggling under a heavy list that might become a bit short tempered. I can understand a judge feeling frustrated that the people who are there to help them are not properly prepared, but none of these things amount to excuses or reasons to turn what is in essence a workplace into a place of bullying.
"Judges overwhelmingly do a great job, but there is no excuse for turning it into what is effectively a bullies' pulpit because defendants, prosecutors and defence lawyers can't answer back."
The outgoing president said on average, a Queensland magistrate dealt with more than 3,500 matters per year.
"They are under a relentless workload. They don't call it the coalface of justice for nothing. I think it is remarkable that there is not more mental health issues among them. The Supreme Court judges work like demons, the Court of Appeal work relentlessly. It never stops - they sit, they listen, they write and it goes on and on," Mr Potts said.
He called for three extra judges to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court in Queensland and for five to be appointed to the State's District Court.
"If you're working at 100 per capacity all year round, you're going to have a breakdown. We need to give our judicial officers time to think and reflect and provide justice without the pressure-cooker environment they're in on a daily basis. It is hard work, it is difficult work and its thankless work," Mr Potts said.
Queensland Bar Association president Rebecca Treston QC said the introduction of a judicial commission would come at a cost.
"In other jurisdictions, such a commission has a role in the appointment of judicial officers and also as a mechanism for complaints about judicial conduct," she said.
"The current system of judicial appointments in Queensland has resulted in solid appointments based on merit. It could be expected that a judicial commission would achieve the same result. "As to conduct of judicial officers, complaints are rare and informal mechanisms already exist to deal with them.
"A judicial commission might be expected to fulfil a similar role to the mechanisms that already exist but with a layer of cost to government for staffing and administration.
"The case for a commission must therefore involve a sensible analysis of the cost-benefit."