Last night I presented the findings of the Bar’s first “Wellbeing of the Victorian Bar” survey to members. We were delighted to be joined by Chief Justice Ferguson at the briefing. The judiciary and the Bar are at one on the importance of good physical and mental health if we are all to achieve our potential. We all know that judges and counsel alike work in a high stress, high performance environment, and that we must work together, in partnership, to safeguard the efficient administration of justice.
There were 856 valid responses to the survey from currently practising counsel—a response rate of 40%. The survey findings showed that:
These results were very pleasing, and well above benchmarks from comparable surveys conducted elsewhere in Australia and the United Kingdom.
However, there were areas of concern, including that 68% of respondents said they experienced stress at work and only 33% said they get the sleep they need every night.
The survey also sought information about Victorian barristers’ experiences of discrimination, harassment and bullying, and here the results were also concerning.
In the last year, one-third of women barristers and one-in-six male barristers reported experiencing discrimination: mostly gender, but also age, race and other discrimination. About 60% of those identified as being responsible for the reported discrimination were external to the Bar.
One-in-six women barristers and 2% of male barristers reported sexual harassment in the last year, with about one-third of those identified as being responsible being external to the Bar.
One-third of women barristers and one-in-five male barristers reported experiencing workplace bullying in the past year, with two-thirds of the persons identified as responsible being external to the Bar. A disturbing 59% of respondents said they had experienced judicial bullying in the course of their careers.
As I said at the briefing last night, discrimination, bullying and harassment are not acceptable in any workplace and certainly not at the Victorian Bar.
Whilst rates of discrimination, bullying and harassment experienced at the Victorian Bar appear to be lower than those of Australian workplaces in general and the legal profession as a whole, the survey findings have highlighted the need for measures to address problem areas.
Bar Council and the Health and Wellbeing Committee will consider a range of measures. We welcome, in particular, the grant we have received from the Victorian Legal Services Board which will enable us to create a health and wellbeing information and resources portal and to evaluate other initiatives.
I have shared the survey results with heads of jurisdiction, all of whom have committed to working with the Bar to introduce measures to address the report findings. More information appears in the next item of my message.
Finally, remember that our profession, whilst rewarding for most of us, can be pressured and stressful at times, and to look out for and support your colleagues. Your Bar is committed to providing the resources and support to address these pressures and to providing a supportive work environment.
In response to the findings in the Wellbeing of the Bar report, the Bar Council last week adopted a policy in relation to good judicial conduct. The policy is available on our website.
Just as judicial officers are entitled to expect the highest standards of professionalism and integrity from members of the Victorian Bar, so too members of the Victorian Bar are entitled to expect the highest standards of conduct from the judicial officers before whom we appear.
Our judicial conduct policy is an Australian first.
The policy outlines options for members who believe they have experienced or witnessed inappropriate judicial conduct. It also outlines the support mechanisms that are available for those who need it.
The Bar Council has appointed two Judicial Conduct Advisers, Jack Rush RFD QC and Fiona McLeod SC. They are available to provide members with advice and support in relation to concerns about judicial conduct. They will be able to advise you as to whether something you have experienced or witnessed may have crossed the line, and provide information about options. Jack and Fiona add to the other existing support mechanisms available at the Bar, including mentors and senior mentors, the Bar Council, our open-door policy, and the availability of free, 24/7 professional counselling for members and their families.
The judicial conduct policy also introduces a new reporting mechanism for members who have experienced or witnessed inappropriate judicial conduct, but do not wish to make a formal or informal complaint. This mechanism is similar to that available under the Bar’s bullying, harassment and discrimination policies. By reporting conduct, even if you do not want to make a complaint, you will help us to understand the prevalence of inappropriate conduct and the contexts in which it occurs, to enable us to tailor our information and resources, and to share information with Victoria’s courts and tribunals.
I am also pleased to be able to announce that the Chief Justice and I have developed a written protocol for raising directly with her Honour, in a relatively informal manner, concerns about judicial conduct at the Supreme Court. I expect that a similar protocol will be finalised shortly with the Chief Judge of the County Court and that protocols of these kinds will be expanded to cover all Victorian courts, and be adopted by the Law Institute of Victoria. The protocols commit to writing long-standing informal arrangements between the leadership of the Bar and heads of jurisdictions. The written protocols are Australian firsts, and graphic testament to the shared commitment of the Courts and the Bar to maintaining the highest standards of conduct in our courtrooms.
The judicial conduct policy and protocols are intended to work alongside the more formal complaints mechanism available via the Judicial Commission of Victoria.
The Bar Council is committed to maintaining an open and frank dialogue with heads of jurisdiction about these issues. I am proud that our Bar, together with the Courts, is leading the way in grappling with these issues.
There were three other large, successful events this week in addition to the launch of the Wellbeing of the Bar report. Hats off to the Victorian Bar events team.
VicBar Family Law Arbitration Group Launch
On Wednesday evening, around 150 people attended the launch of the VicBar Family Law Arbitration Group – “VFLAG”. Speakers included the newly appointed Chief Justice of the Family Court, Chief Justice Alstergren. VFLAG is well poised to fulfil its objective of raising awareness within the profession and the public of the opportunities which arbitrations provide for timely and efficient resolution of family law disputes.
Networking event in Ballarat
Last night, about 90 barristers and solicitors attended an informal networking evening in Ballarat, hosted by the Ballarat & District Law Association and the Victorian Bar, and sponsored by Dever’s List and Holmes List. By all accounts it was a great success. Sam Hay attended on behalf of the Bar, together with fellow Bar Councillors Erin Hill and Justin Wheelahan. I was sorry to miss the event because of the clash with the launch of the Wellbeing of the Bar report.
Annual Industrial Law Update
This week about 140 people attended the annual Industrial Law update, with Justice Bromberg chairing a panel of four speakers on recent developments in that practice area. Congratulations to the Industrial Bar Association who hosted the event.
The release of the Wellbeing of the Bar report dominated my week. Earlier today I presented the results to the judiciary at an event organised by the Judicial College of Victoria and chaired by Chief Justice Ferguson. The event was well attended by many members of the judiciary from all jurisdictions, lured I suspect by the invitation which was sent under cover of an email with the subject line, “Hear what over 850 barristers have to say about their experiences of judicial conduct”.
This week, I also attended a Bar Council meeting, a Bar Council Executive meeting, a Diversity & Inclusion Working Group meeting, a Chartered Institute of Arbitrators dinner (representing the ABA in that case), caught up with the CEO of the Australian Bar Association and held my weekly meeting with the Victorian Bar’s CEO Sarah Fregon.