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Judges need more feedback on their work, new research concludes

Bristol University’s recommendations welcomed by the President

New research conducted for the Family Justice Council by Professor Judith Masson, from Bristol University – Developing judgement: the role of Feedback for Judges in the Family Court – has been welcomed by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division.

The research has explored how feedback on the work they do could improve the way judges handle cases about children's care.

The report notes that being a judge is 'a very lonely job' – most judges in the family courts decide cases on their own and have no opportunities to see other judges hearing cases. Unlike professionals in medicine, social work, teaching and many other areas, judges get little or no feedback on the work they do. The research identified several types of feedback that could be helpful for judges, including feedback from observation of their practice, from other judges and court users, and about the effects of court orders on children and families. Being observed and observing other judges encourages self-reflection, and is used in judicial training and development in other jurisdictions, particularly in parts of Australia. Court users, both lawyers and litigants can provide important feedback about whether the judge made their reasons and decisions clear and treated them fairly. Again, such surveys are undertaken in Australia and parts of the USA; court-user surveys in England and Wales have only asked questions about services outside the court room.

The judges who took part in the study were generally positive about the idea of receiving feedback but some were anxious that feedback could leave them feeling less confident in the work they did. Many were interested to know what happened to children involved in their cases but they were clear that feedback about what happened in an individual case could not be allowed to impact on their decisions in future cases: cases had to be decided on their own facts.

The study also included interviews with experienced researchers in family justice. They also favoured judges having feedback to give them a wider understanding of the decisions they had to take. Facts had to be understood in context; for example, what were the usual effects of ill-treatment or particular care arrangements on children of different ages? Researchers thought that findings on children's development, care and the effects of different court orders should be fed back to judges so that they were better informed when they made decisions. 

The report recommends the development of feedback mechanisms for judges including observation and discussion of judicial performance by judges; interdisciplinary discussions of completed cases; court user surveys including questions about experiences in the court room; and better use of data about court proceedings in judicial training. To give judges a better understanding of the decisions in care proceedings, judges should be provided with a research-based guide on the care system.

The research involved focus group discussions with 28 family court judges from across England and Wales, and in depth interviews with 9 experienced socio-legal researchers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand and a literature review. Funding for work in England and Wales and transcription of the interviews was provided by the Family Justice Council.

A copy of the research is available here.