When John O’Connor became a judge, first of the District Court, later the Circuit Court, there were no training courses available, bar an informal “shadowing” of a serving judge for a few weeks.
And that depended on whether an experienced judge was available to guide, or not, says O’Connor, who was appointed to the bench in 2012.
“There was always a shortage,” he says. “Outside of the annual judicial conferences, with speakers addressing us during three-hour sessions, there was no formal training. If you wanted to do a course, you had to do it yourself.”
Now a sea change is under way, as judges welcome their first formal training programme, including courses on ethics, unconscious bias and improving the courtroom experience of vulnerable witnesses.
Since July 2020 every new judge has undergone ethics induction training, while outside experts have given “Judgecraft” courses to more than half the judiciary. More are scheduled over the coming months.
The course to improve the courtroom experience of vulnerable witnesses is in line with a report commissioned in the wake of the 2018 Belfast rape trial, where the four accused were acquitted on all counts.
High Court judge Mary Rose Gearty, who was appointed director of judicial studies just over a year ago by the Judicial Council, says the new formal training scheme "guards against complacency" by judges.
“Judges are so used to being in court,” she says. “The course gave us some insight into what a victim goes through. Not only are victims vulnerable, they don’t know who everyone is, or what is happening.”
None of this means a judge should be partial or over-solicitous, she says. “There is no need to be, because this is about using the exact same techniques – respect, courtesy, understanding – to a victim and to an accused.”
She hopes judges will see that the courses help them to be fair , in turn enhancing public confidence. “The judiciary enjoys a lot of public respect; it’s a question of maintaining that.”
In line with the Judicial Council Act 2019, a Judicial Studies Committee, chaired by Court of Appeal judge Aileen Donnelly, was set up in February 2020 to improve training.
Its other members are Supreme Court judge John MacMenamin; Judge Gearty and her High Court colleague Niamh Hyland; Circuit Court judge Mary O'Malley Costello; District Court president Paul Kelly and his District Court colleague judge Marie Quirke.
Years of service
Before this judges received some informal training, mainly via their annual conference, while a small number travelled to the UK. The Association of Judges of Ireland long complained about the lack of resources.
The lack of a formal training course does not mean newly appointed judges have no courtroom experience. Unlike judges elsewhere in Europe, every judge has long years of service as solicitors and barristers behind them.
Nevertheless, Dr Laura Cahillane, senior law lecturer at the University of Limerick, says many judges have indicated to her in that they have felt "thrown in at the deep end".
Training needs will vary, depending on the judge and their court, she says, but could include writing judgments, ICT skills, case management, dealing with lay litigants and multiculturalism, along with “judicial wellness” advice to aid those dealing with distressing cases.
Gearty, Court of Appeal judge Brian Murray and Circuit Court judge John O'Connor all say enthusiasm for training is evident across the judiciary, with more than 70 per cent expressing a desire for it.
“There was great enthusiasm from all court jurisdictions,” says Judge Gearty. “The most difficult problem is to get judges released from their duties as there are so few of them.”
She believes past experience of a courtroom environment is no longer enough. “Training and professional development has evolved to the point where it is indefensible not to have continuing training.”
On appointment, all judges must agree to take part in any training directed by the president of their court.
Gearty spends half of her year on the High Court bench hearing cases and the rest as director of studies, helped by the Judicial Council’s two full-time staff, who have many other duties.
“We had to choose our priorities, we could not do everything. We decided a certain amount of induction for new judges has to be a priority.”
Training began almost immediately. Ethics induction courses have been completed for every judge appointed since Gearty took up her role, and judicial mentors have been trained.
"All the new judges have done it with great enthusiasm," she says. The same enthusiasm was shown for three judgecraft courses, just completed earlier this month, including the vulnerable witnesses course, aimed at avoiding "retraumatisation",and put together with help from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Rape Crisis Network.
The second course, on unconscious bias, was developed with the help of the King’s Inns. “They gave us the scenarios and then stepped aside and we ran it, so it was judges in the room, judge-led,peer learning, acting out with actors in the room.”
During the Covid pandemic, Gearty and other judges availed of several online judicial training courses, from locations including Paris.
O’Connor stresses the courses are “not about the law, it’s about how we treat people in court”. “There is now greater awareness of vulnerabilities, not just the classic ones such as mental health but also of people with educational disabilities such as dyspraxia and dyslexia.”
When he was appointed to the bench in 2012, there was nothing available in relation to training, unlike in the UK, “so what is happening now is a huge change”.
“It’s not just for us, there is a realisation that, experienced as we are, we do need some assistance and that has been a huge learning curve. Judges are always very professional and we try to do our best but we lacked the resources and structure.”
Judges have also become more proactive in dealing with personal litigants, he says. “Most lay litigants don’t want to be in court, they certainly don’t want to be there representing themselves. We have to address how they can be supported.”
Murray, who was appointed to the Court of Appeal two years ago, says conferences and other training experiences have not been available during most of the past 18 months due to the pandemic.
He describes the training-up course as “very illuminating”, including about the expectations and treatment of litigants, and the process of making and explaining decisions.
“I saw how interactive tuition for adults and those with some knowledge of a particular area brings the learning experience to a completely different level and develops an understanding of the kind of things that need to be taught,” he says. “This is not about delivering courses in hard law.”
According to Murray, it is essential that such training is available and that the structures and resources are there to deliver it. Individual judges will decide whether it is necessary for them to plug into some or all of those options, he says.
Most litigants, according to a UK survey, have no interest whether the judge correctly applies the law in their case or not, he notes. Their main concern, whether or not they win their case, “is that they were heard”.