07:16, December 05 70 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-05 07:16:03
Lord chief justice: judges face increasing torrent of threats and abuse

Judges are facing physical threats and an increasing “torrent of personal abuse” online, some of which is designed to intimidate them, the new lord chief justice has said.

The new danger confronting the judiciary, according to Lord Burnett of Maldon, is “capable of undermining the rule of law” while more support is being made available to those who sit on particularly harrowing family and sex cases.

The new lord chief justice has been in office for two months. Appearing at his first annual press conference in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, he accepted that judges should not be above criticism.

“But fair criticism is different from abuse,” he explained. There are 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.

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

To counter such problems, Burnett said he wanted to improve public understanding of, and sympathy for, the dedicated work carried out by the judiciary. More work with schools is planned. “We have hundreds of judges visiting schools and working in the local communities and supporting school visits to the courts,” he said. “This is unsung work of great value.”

A new counselling programme is being developed to support to judges who have to deal with the most difficult cases in court, Burnett said. “Nobody should underestimate how difficult or harrowing it can be to deal regularly with family cases concerning child protection, or criminal cases involving serious violence or sexual abuse.

“For those who have a fairly relentless diet of [violence or] serious sex cases, it can have an impact so we are making professional support available to judges who feel that it would assist them. Judges are very self-contained individuals but no one is invulnerable to the effects and materials that they see in the course of their professional lives.”

Burnett’s other main priority involves overseeing development and delivery of a £1bn court modernisation programme phased in over six years. It is aimed at improving access to justice and efficiency in the courts as well as upgrading court buildings.

“It is quite remarkable that towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century many of our courts still operate on paper-based systems,” he said.

A digital case system has been introduced in the criminal courts over the past two years which has already saved the need to print 33 million pages of paper. A similar system will come into force in the civil courts.

Online justice, which currently covers such minor crimes as fare evasion and traffic offences, is being expanded, Burnett, who heads the judiciary in England and Wales, added. “This is really just the beginning.” Pilot programmes dealing with divorce and probate online wereworking well, he said.

“When we reach our goal, it should be possible for a very large number of civil disputes to be resolved using online facilities with appropriate judicial input when it is needed but rarely requiring parties to attend court.”

Asked what other types of offences or claims would transferred online, Burnett said it was more a question of whole categories of hearings being conducted remotely, such as bail applications and taking pleas.

The transition was not so revolutionary, Burnett pointed out. Telephone hearings have been common in some parts of the justice system for 20 years.

The new lord chief justice said he was surprised to discover that the allocated annual budget for repairs in the crumbling courthouse estate was often underspent in past years. He has now established a £5m fund to deal with relatively minor but urgently needed repairs and asked courts around the country to bid for the money.