Judge warns of suicide risk for overworked colleagues

Scales of Justice statue (Photo: Rae Allen, Flickr)

Mid-morning in Court G2 at Downing Centre Local Court, in central Sydney, and Judge Robyn Tupman was not happy.

She was scheduled to hand down sentence in no fewer than seven cases, and key documents had reached her less than two hours earlier. Some of the defendants were stuck in traffic.

As proceedings on Thursday slowed and ground to a halt, the District Court judge’s patience wore thin. She interrupted lawyers, reprimanding them like a teacher exasperated by students failing to submit their homework on time.

Although clearly anxious to get through the huge volume of work, Judge Tupman had yet to hand down a single sentence 90 minutes in from the start of court.

Later that day, the tensions in G2 boiled over. Postponing sentence in the case of Jean Barbarin, who has admitted to a series of sex attacks in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in 2016 and 2017, Judge Tupman attacked the under-resourced court system.

Her caseload that day was “ridiculous, absurd and offensive to the people of NSW”, she declared, warning of the impact that such overwork could have on judges’ mental health.

“Let’s not muck around, we don’t want judges committing suicide, like what happened in Victoria,” she declared, in a reference to the deaths of magistrate Stephen Myall and former magistrate Jacinta Dwyer in that state during the past year.

The experienced judge added: “I fear for the well-being of many of my colleagues on this bench who have far less experience, are much younger and perhaps aren’t quite the bastard that I am.

“I hope we don’t have the tragic outcome in NSW that has occurred in Melbourne because of the extraordinary workload required to be undertaken by the District Court.”

Judge Tupman said she knew many of her Downing Centre colleagues were confronting a similar volume of work that morning. “They may not feel inclined to speak out, but I do,” she said. “We’re paid well, but we’re not paid for that level of pressure.”

She called for “more judges, more courthouses [and] more courtrooms so that all cases can be dealt with properly”.

According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, the criminal courts dealt with 3,023 more defendants in 2017 than in the previous year, and 21,000 more than in 2013.

The NSW Attorney-General, Mark Speakman, is to review Judge Tupman’s comments. He noted the government had invested $86 million since 2016 in additional resources for the criminal justice system, including five extra District Court judges.

“The Judicial Commission of NSW offers a free 24-hour counselling service for judicial officers as part of the Judicial Assistance Program,” he added. – @SammutJack

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