Judges face torrent of abuse online, says new lord chief justice

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Dec 06, 2017
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Lord Burnett said “judicial independence and impartiality is at the heart of the rule of law”

Times Photographer Jack Hill

The rule of law is under threat in Britain as judges face a “torrent of personal abuse” online, the country’s most senior judge said yesterday.

Lord Burnett of Maldon, speaking at his first press conference since he became lord chief justice and head of the judiciary of England and Wales in October, said that there was a “growing number of cases where judges are threatened and physically abused”.

He added: “Some is calculated to intimidate judges individually or collectively. Such abuse is capable of undermining the rule of law. Judicial independence and impartiality is at the heart of the rule of law.”

Lord Burnett, 59, said that judges were also being given counselling to deal with stresses of their work including the often harrowing cases that were now coming before the courts.

It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of crown court time is spent on sexual offences cases. “This can have an impact, so we are making available professional support to judges who feel that it would assist them,” Lord Burnett said.

“This is a new initiative which has been available for some months now. It is something that I very much support,” he said, adding that judges were usually “fairly self-contained” individuals “but none of us is invulnerable to the effects of the materials that we see in the course of our professional lives”.

Sitting as a judge in the Court of Appeal criminal division, “there is some pretty shocking material that comes across our desks which we have to take into account to be able to determine the cases before us”, he said.

“It is important to remember that judges are human and that we put in place all mechanisms to assist those who need it.” 

Lord Burnett said that he doubted whether the public appreciated “the nature of the work done by our judges on a day-day basis.

“Nobody should underestimate how difficult and harrowing it can be to deal regularly with family cases concerning child protection, or criminal cases involving serious violence or sexual abuse.

“Our judges work incredibly hard making important, often life-changing decisions, day in, day out, in difficult circumstances.”

Lord Burnett said that there needed to be greater public understanding of what judges did, which in turn would lead to greater respect.

However, he added that “of course, judges must earn that respect, and should not be immune from criticism for their decisions, but fair criticism is different from abuse.

“By this I mean those cases where judges face a torrent of personal abuse for decisions they have made — increasingly online and in social media — and a growing number of cases where judges are threatened and physically abused.”

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