In his first press conference as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon said that judges are facing increasing online abuse and even physical threats.
Speaking at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Lord Burnett said that “such abuse is capable of undermining the rule of law”. There has been a particular rise in those taking to social media to criticise decisions made by the judiciary. The new lord chief justice, recognised that judges should not be above criticism, but emphasised that “fair criticism is different from abuse”.
In November, a family court judge, Robin Tolson QC, was rugby tackled to the pavement outside court by an angry litigant. The man responsible, Kevin Robinson, was sentenced to 20 weeks in prison.
Lord Burnett spoke of the possible consequences of such behaviour. Confidence in the judiciary to impartially uphold the rule of law could be damaged. Intimidated judges could find it more difficult to act in the face of such threats. He also added that this kind of behaviour is putting people off a career as a judge. The Lord Chief Justice’s Report 2017 noted issues with recruitment, especially at more senior levels. After being attacked, Judge Tolson said that such an incident “goes with the territory” of the job.
In an attempt to counter this rise in abuse directed at judges, Lord Burnett spoke of plans to help the public better understand the work that they do. For example, he said that there are “hundreds of judges visiting schools and working in the local communities and supporting school visits to the courts”. He hopes that this will increase sympathy for the contribution that judges make to our legal system.
The rise in the threatening behaviour that judges are facing is likely to compound the impact of working on difficult cases in court. Lord Burnett said that a new counselling system is in the development stage. This will add another layer of support for judges dealing with cases involving violence or sexual abuse, or serious family cases.