One of Researching Reform’s interests is judicial bias – the extent to which judges allow their personal sentiments to dictate the way they handle their cases – so the recent furore over Justice Pauffley’s remarks about hitting children and cultural norms fascinated us.
Judicial bias is a very real, and present problem. All of us are prone to bias, and research suggests that even judges are not immune, regardless of how bright or how well educated.
Last year, one of our favourite judges, Baroness Hale, observed that judges lead sheltered lives and that this could in turn jeopardise their ability to adjudicate impartially, and with the necessary kind of life experience.
Justice Pauffley’s remarks, in which she told the court that foreign families who hit their children should be made allowances for due to cultural norms, seem odd given that hitting a child is still not illegal, and applies to all families, both foreign and not, residing here. But bias is a varied and often unpredictable phenomenon and doesn’t always guarantee a linear pattern of thought. Justice Pauffley’s comments have always been direct and searingly honest – she has openly criticised the flaws inside the justice system and takes a no nonsense approach to poor professional practice. Her comment in this most recent case though, suggests a deep-seated attitude towards hitting children.
These sorts of difficulties are echoed in the slow nature in which family law judges have taken to trying to grasp the Voice of the Child. Many judges, despite having children of their own, seem completely at sea with children and unable to engage with them when it matters most – to help amplify their wishes and feelings, so they can be seen as well as heard. That children are still so misunderstood, or not understood at all in most cases, is testimony to the fact that our judicial system remains wanting.
It’s time for the Bar to select individuals who are experienced, plugged in and in touch with the world around them. And just as importantly, to find those who are passionate about children and helping to ensure the best possible outcomes for them. Better training too is needed for our current family law judges, so that they can learn to keep any biases in check and carry out their work in a professional and competent manner.