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  • Martin Felsky

Government respect for judges is slipping

If I told you that 78% of all judges in a certain country were "extremely concerned" that their government had lost respect for them, what country would come to mind? Bolivia? Myanmar? Poland? Bangladesh perhaps? (These are the countries ranked among the worst for judicial independence on the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index ).

No, it's actually the United Kingdom, whose judicial independence score is among the best in the world. The annual Judicial Attitude Survey for 2020 (pdf) results is where this 78% figure comes from.  Key findings on judicial respect:

  • Over two thirds (69%) of judges feel that members of the judiciary are respected less by society at large than they were 5 years ago.

  • Judges feel most valued by their judicial colleagues at court (94%), court staff (93%), the legal profession (89%) and parties in cases (87%). Two thirds (67%) feel valued by the public.

  • Very few judges feel valued by the Government (9%) or the media (12%), and no judges feel greatly valued by the Government or media.

The most shocking attitude expressed was that "In 2020, a new factor, “lack of respect for the judiciary by government”, was more significant in prompting judges to leave early than any other factor identified in 2016." In other words, this lack of respect is not just a matter of hurt feelings. It has a real impact on the  career plans of the salaried judiciary. I don't think it is a coincidence that "Almost half of all judges (43%) said they would like more guidance on how to deal with internet and social media coverage of their work as a judge."

Judges in the UK are under political attack for their so-called activism in judicial review: failing, as unelected officials, to show sufficient deference to democratic government policymaking and legislation. A report commissioned by government in the summer of 2019 to "end the abuse" of judicial review was recently handed in by Lord Faulks QC. The Law Society submission says there is no need for reform - the common law on judicial review is working pretty well. These sorts of attacks are not new, and not limited to the UK. They are based on misapprehensions: first, of the role of the judiciary as impartial arbiters of the constitution, and second of the meaning of democracy.

As a 2015 study concludes, "[T]he greatest threat to judicial independence in future may lie not from politicians actively seeking to undermine the courts, but rather from their increasing disengagement from the justice system and the judiciary." Unfortunately, as recent events in the UK demonstrate, this is no longer an either/or situation. See Gee et al., The politics of judicial independence in the UK's changing constitution.

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