Issue 11, Volume 18
The sudden passing of Federal Circuit Court Judge Guy Andrew has reopened an ongoing and much-needed discussion about mental health in the legal profession. While, at the time of writing, the circumstances surrounding his disappearance remain unclear, Judge Andrew’s is not the first high-profile case to shine a spotlight on these issues within our industry.
Only two months ago, an investigation by the Victorian Coroner into the passing of magistrate Stephen Myall in March 2018 found that stress and a heavy workload were likely contributors to his death. His passing came only a few short months after that of Magistrate Jacinta Dwyer in October 2017. Peter Wilmoth’s piece on the subject in the Good Weekend should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in this important topic.
These were two incredibly capable and well-respected practitioners at the height of the profession with substantial legal experience. Stephen Myall had served as a magistrate for 13 years, while Jacinta Dwyer was a family violence specialist well-acquainted with the often-confronting jurisdiction of family law. If the intensity of a high-pressure legal career could take such a toll on them, it could have such an effect on any of us.
The late Judge Andrew had recently been the subject of fierce media scrutiny in relation to alleged misconduct in a parenting and property dispute. Some have suggested that this conduct should have been a warning sign that His Honour might not be coping as the sole judge responsible for the backlogged Townsville Registry, rather than an opportunity to question his character and fitness to serve.
I do not want to focus this discussion on the nonetheless serious issues at the heart of the Adacot & Sowle decision. Although it is fundamentally important that judicial officers are held to a high standard of conduct, we should acknowledge that all public criticism, whether warranted or unwarranted, can be harmful to a person’s mental health and self-esteem.
As Chief Justice William Alstergren has observed, Judge Andrew’s passing should serve as a ‘reminder of the extraordinary pressure on all who practice in the often highly emotive family law jurisdiction’. A recent Australian-first survey of the wellbeing of judges and magistrates conducted by researchers at our university’s School of Psychological Sciences found that a third of the more than 150 judicial officers surveyed were experiencing ‘moderate to severe’ symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. Three-quarters reported some burnout risk or emotional exhaustion connected to their work.
Perhaps more concerningly, the study indicated that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are more prevalent across the rest of the legal profession. It seems that the focus on workload management and mental health awareness in our courts has helped to ensure that our judiciary is coping with high stress work, but this should not be an excuse for complacency in our industry.
Studies have consistently shown that there is a real mental health problem within the legal profession. We are becoming increasingly aware of the high levels of psychological distress and risk of depression among both law students and practicing lawyers.
Courts across the country, and especially in Victoria, have begun taking steps to implement new programs to address the mental health risks associated with heavy caseloads and the sensitive subject matters to which judges are regularly exposed. The Judicial College of Victoria is described as ‘an international leader in providing wellbeing professional development for the judiciary’ and should be commended for its proactive approach.
But this curse on the legal industry as a whole will not be redressed without systematic and systemic action from employers, industry groups, law schools and practitioners. I do not pretend to have the answers, but I do hope to encourage you – as my peers and colleagues – to speak up and contribute to the discussion with the intellect and compassion that I have consistently observed at MLS.
Coincidentally, as I am writing this, tomorrow is World Mental Health Day. Days such as these are timely reminders of the importance of mental health, but they must be more than just a social media photo opportunity for image conscious firms and institutions.
The message is clear: everyone, no matter their rank or status within the profession, is placed at risk by the nature of our industry. I’m often reminded that people often turn to lawyers when they feel they have nowhere else to go. By the time litigants have got to court, oftentimes both sides have already lost.
Some of the changes that the legal profession may need to undergo to address these issues may require fundamentally re-thinking aspects of our industry. That’s a conversation that needs to continue.
If nothing else, I hope these events serve as a reminder that we can all afford to be a little kinder to each other and ourselves.
Xavier Boffa is a third-year JD student.
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
Headspace on 1800 650 890
University of Melbourne mental health services: https://students.unimelb.edu.au/student-support/health-and-wellbeing/mental-health