‘Who judges the judges?’ is a constant philosophical and managerial refrain. And, at least from a management point of view, the answer is nobody. Of course judges are accountable for the judgements they make: the decisions and the reasoning behind these decisions is available for anyone to view and they are open to legal challenge.
But in other respects the feedback they receive is negligible. Formal – or even semi-formal – appraisals are largely absent in the judiciary, and, for the time being, completely absent as far as I have been able to ascertain amongst senior judges. There are understandable reasons for this. It could be embarrassing if details of poor assessments were made public and more fundamentally it can be difficult and potentially compromising to assess the quality of the work that they do.
However, like other public sector managers who have complicated jobs with hard to measure outcomes, judges should make especially strenuous efforts to seek feedback. By doing so they will improve their performance and they will feel more accountable to their colleagues and to the public.
Fortunately, judges are not short of potential sources for such feedback. They can ask the barristers who appear before them, the court clerks who work directly for them, the jurors who are managed by them, and even the defendants and witnesses. Perhaps most pertinently they can seek feedback from their fellow judges who will probably not be short of an opinion or two.
And what might they ask for feedback on? In some instances it might relate to the process of making the judgments themselves but it should also concentrate on more prosaic matters. Did the judge create the right working environment? Was the judge efficient in handling paperwork and meetings? When did the judge communicate well or badly? What are the examples of good and bad interventions made by the judge? Do other judges do things that they could learn from?
There are of course some challenges to this approach whether with judges or other parts of the public sector. It might be too time consuming, it might be hard to get honest feedback and in some cases the feedback may be too sensitive to share or write down. But these are conquerable challenges when weighed against the importance of finding a way to assess and improve performance. And the drive to conquer these challenges should be particularly strong in a public sector environment in which clear accountability is often so hard to achieve.