• Saturday, July 20, 2024

HEADLINE STORY

REVEALED: Judiciary’s “secret plan” to scare judges

One of the worst accusations is that human resources collude with the senior leadership to undermine judges. (Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

By: Barnie Choudhury

Judges accuse lord chief justice of trying to silence them

Exclusive

A judge who complained about bullying and racism has told Eastern Eye she will quit if the judiciary does not properly consult over a new whistle blowing policy.

District Judge Claire Gilham won a seven-year legal battle against the Ministry of Justice in 2019.

She was sacked but later reinstated. The Supreme Court ruled she was a worker and entitled to whistle blow.

This forced the judicial office and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to create a policy, due to be published this month.

But Eastern Eye has learnt that Gilham was not consulted.

“I had been told that there was a consultative process whereby it will be handed to the associations, and they would then be able to consult their members,” said the judge.

“I was led to believe I would be able to comment on it then. I just I wanted to get a copy from my association, and they said they weren’t allowed to supply it.

“So now, I don’t know whether I should have seen it or not. Which is true? Was there a consultation? Or was there never consultation?”

She also warned that more judges could quit if they felt new policies would undermine further their independence.

“I won’t be able to stay,” she told Eastern Eye. “I wouldn’t have embarked upon the whistleblowing case that I did spending so much of my family’s resources and so many years of my life, taking the ministry to the Supreme Court to try and get whistleblowing rights for judges.

“The development of the required policy should be opening up the judiciary to public scrutiny and inducing transparency so that we can admit our mistakes.

“We need a policy which allows for a whistle blower to raise very serious concerns.”

No anonymity allowed

One ethnic minority judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that complaining was very expensive.

“You’re advised to lawyer up, and that runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds,” they said.

“I know of one who’s facing a bill of £140,000 just for advice and legal submissions. I know the public think we’re minted, but that’s not true.

“Taking out a grievance complaint adds to the cost, and it’s proved to be pretty useless.”

Just two months ago, we revealed how the lord chief justice refused to acknowledge the judiciary had a problem with bullying or racism.

Last week (3) we revealed that non-white judges said had no hope of securing justice for themselves against bullying and racism in the UK judiciary.

Their comments came after the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, and Sir Keith Lindblom, the senior president of tribunals, wrote to justices that anonymous complaints would not be investigated.

“Any allegation of bullying, harassment or discrimination will be taken seriously and handled in accordance with the relevant judicial grievance or conduct procedure,” they wrote.

“To allow for full investigation, any complaint must be made directly by a named individual or individuals.”

In an email, a justice spokesperson seemed to contradict this directive.

“Reasonable steps will be taken to investigate anonymous concerns, although judicial office holders are encouraged to identify themselves to ensure that a full investigation can take place,” they said.

Despite the confusing messages, Eastern Eye told the lord chief justice’s office last year that judges of all ethnicities do not feel confident about complaining.

Secret soundings

Justices want MPs to investigate their claims and said there would be a “plethora of whistle blowers willing to give evidence if they could be protected”.

“We have tried to complain, and we are literally destroyed for doing so,” said one non-white judge.

“I am disgusted by the lord chief’s letter. I am being bullied by everyone. There is no independence and no challenge, just the indication that the purpose of any investigation is to safeguard the careers and reputations of those complained of.”

Gilham also revealed that she had tried and failed to become part of the group writing the new whistle blowing policy.

“The secrecy seems to have increased as the process has gone on. Rather than becoming more open, as a result of the questions being asked by judges, they seem to have closed down,” she said.

“I would have thought that my experience and my previous roles would have made me an outstanding candidate for this.

“But in fact, it’s come back that not only have I not got the role, which I could accept if there had been a better qualified candidate, but a decision’s been made not to take any representation from the civil district judges, of whom I am a member.

“So effectively, there will be nobody who has the same job as us who can stand behind us if we wish to whistle blow as district judges.”

She described the consultation process as “petty, foolish and creates a bad atmosphere inside the judiciary”.

“Closing down the consultation process that we have been promised seems to me to be unforgivable.

“It is the secrecy of the of the process which is very odd within the Ministry of Justice. It seems that papers are tabled at a meeting at which selected representatives are present.

“They’re then given a very short time to comment, but they’re not allowed to discuss what they’re commenting on with anyone.”

Gagging judges

Gilham’s views have been echoed by several ethnic minority judges.

“This is a secret new policy, and no-one is allowed to see it,” they said. “We believe it will be kept secret, channelled away so it can be dismissed once it’s made public.

“We think it will mean that anyone who speaks out in public will be sacked. They already did that with Claire.”

The district judge was later reinstated after her court victory.

The justice office rejected the idea that judges were not being consulted.

“Judges and magistrates representing all levels of the judiciary have been part of the group discussing and producing this policy,” responded a spokesperson.

But the office would not comment whether District Judge Gilham, the reason why the MoJ has been forced to draw up a policy, had been among the group.

Judges have contacted Eastern Eye to say racism, bullying and discrimination have become worse since we started our campaign last year.

Culture of bullying

Those we spoke to, said the judiciary does not understand or accept the level of dissatisfaction, fear or hurt.

“Presiders bully and undermine, belittle and isolate, it is the official presider policy,” complained one.

“Judges up and down the country are made ill and are frightened. Is that the Judiciary we want?”

The email from the country’s most senior judges was sent last week (1).

“One colleague who’s suicidal and is at risk, was vilified and gaslighted,” said an ethnic minority judge.

“Two judges, a retired Court of Appeal and another retired from the Supreme Court, told them they were unfit to be a judge, that they were a liar and mentally unstable.

“The only possible motive was to either lead to them committing suicide or retiring on health grounds.

“That was the intention of those investigating, even enlisting the help of the complainant’s leadership judge to help them. That same judge has on several occasions sought to force the complainant to leave their court.”

The judicial office last updated its grievance policies in 2020, just two years after its previous guidelines.

“This is an issue on which no-one can be complacent,” wrote Lord Burnett and Sir Keith.

“We will look very carefully at the responses to the wellbeing survey on this topic. We are strengthening the mechanisms for handling grievances, and for supporting judicial office holders who raise concerns.”

The 2020 judicial attitudes survey asked 45 questions.

But non-white judges have told Eastern Eye that the “wellbeing survey is pointless”.

“It doesn’t ask any questions about whether we’ve faced bullying, racism or discrimination”, said one. “So, what is the point? It’s a box-ticking exercise which isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

“A number have been suicidal and remain at risk. Judges are bullied and harassed by their leadership judges. Work is moved between courts to destabilise us.

“Remarks are made that indicate that a judge will never be admitted to salaried position or obtain advancement. A practice of divide and rule exists so that tame BAMEs are feted and praised for undermining their colleagues.”

HR collusion

One of the worst accusations is that human resources collude with the senior leadership to undermine judges.

“Work, advancement, leave, deployment, are all controlled,” said one non-white judge we contacted. “HR works for the senior judiciary, breaching confidences, forwarding confidential emails without permission, and laughing and undermining the judges who ask for their help.

“HR actively help to undermine complainants, and are seen to do so.”

Eastern Eye first broke the story last July, and judges have contacted us asking MPs to intervene. And it appears the email is a reaction to our articles.

“Recent press articles have reported allegations of bullying and discrimination within the judiciary,” wrote the UK’s most senior judicial figures.

“We, and the senior judiciary as a whole, are absolutely clear that bullying, harassment and discrimination are totally unacceptable, whether towards another judge, tribunal member or magistrate, a member of staff or any participant in a court or tribunal hearing.”

But we have previously spoken to judges who

  • complained they were victimised, ostracised, and treated as the problem.
  • claimed that mainly white judges are chosen to join the elite ranks through informal and powerful ‘establishment’ networks.
  • said they are blacklisted if they refused to “play the game” or were viewed as “anti-establishment”.

Orwellian nightmare

“Many of us give up careers as silks [Queen’s Counsel] to sit on the bench, and for what?” said one judge.

“This is an Orwellian nightmare. Our country and the Commonwealth deserve so much better.”

District Judge Gilham wants the new whistle blower policy to have no time limits when it comes to putting in a complaint.

She also wants judges to be able to go to an independent body, such as the justice select committee, if they are dissatisfied with the way their whistle blowing case has been handled.

“The immunity of judges from being sued for what they say is a very small part of judicial independence,” explained Gilham.

“Judicial independence is doing justice without fear or favour. This is introducing fear and, of course, favour because we don’t talk about our own errors.”

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