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Sometimes constituents contact their MP because they are unhappy with the way that a judge, or other judicial office-holder, has behaved towards them. These are what are known as complaints about personal conduct of judges. They are distinct from complaints about points of law, which are about the procedural decisions or the substantive outcome of a legal dispute.

What is judicial misconduct?

Misconduct, on the part of judges, is about more than just getting a decision wrong, following the wrong process, or making a biased decision. It is about the way they behave towards other people (litigants, lawyers, court staff, colleagues etc) and where they breach their professional obligations.

The Judicial Complaints Investigations Office (about which more below) gives some examples of things that would warrant a judicial misconduct investigation:

  • Bullying or harassment, for example of staff, colleagues, litigants, or legal representatives
  • Using racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive language
  • Loss of temper/rudeness/aggression, for example shouting
  • Misusing judicial status, for example to try to influence another person or organisation for personal gain
  • Misusing social media, for example posting offensive content, or content which could damage public confidence in judicial impartiality such as remarks about government policy
  • Failure to report personal involvement in civil, criminal, or professional disciplinary proceedings
  • Delay in issuing a judgment or order (usually considered to be a delay, without a reasonable excuse, of more than three months)
  • Falling asleep in court

The following, by contrast, do not fall under misconduct investigations:

  • A judge’s decision or order
  • Bias in a judge’s decision-making
  • A judge allowing one party to speak for longer than another
  • A judge refusing to allow a witness to give evidence or admit certain documents
  • A judge appearing to react more favourably to one person’s evidence than another’s
  • A judge saying that he or she does not believe a person’s evidence, questioning a person’s credibility or criticising a person’s actions
  • A judge making an error of law or procedure
  • A judge expressing opinions about issues related to a case they are hearing
  • The amount of costs or damages awarded by a judge
  • A judge not reading documents before a hearing
  • A judge refusing to transfer a case to a different judge or court
  • A judge reserving a case to themselves
  • A judge refusing to correspond with a party about a case

Any allegations of criminal behaviour should normally be raised with the police or other law enforcement, rather than as merely a judicial misconduct issue.

Where to find the rules on misconduct?

There are rules that govern judicial discipline and misconduct, but they are not all found in in one place. This is because there are:

  • three distinct legal systems in the UK;
  • a mixture of legally trained and non-legally trained judicial office-holders; and
  • different arrangements for various tribunals (as distinct from courts)

The complaints processes themselves all take a similar form. But the investigating body, to whom a complaint should be directed, will differ, depending on the type of office they hold, as will the arrangements for imposing sanctions, depending on the seniority of the judicial office-holder.

The position in England and Wales

Disciplinary powers, in England and Wales, are shared between and exercised jointly by the Lord Chancellor (a UK Government Minister) and the Lord Chief Justice (or if relevant, a Tribunal President). Disciplinary powers include those to:

  • give informal advice or warnings;
  • give formal advice or warnings;
  • suspend an office-holder from their duties (including interim suspension during disciplinary proceedings); and
  • remove an office-holder from their position

The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO)

In England and Wales, the Judicial Complaints Investigations Office (JCIO) investigates misconduct complaints about:

  • Court of Appeal judges
  • High Court judges
  • Crown Court judges
  • County Court judges
  • Family Court judges
  • Tribunal Chamber Presidents
  • Coroners and Assistant Coroners (not necessarily judges, but subject to the same disciplinary oversight)

Complaints about magistrates (lay justices) should be directed to the Local Advisory Committee.

Complaints about tribunal judges (except Chamber Presidents) should be directed to the relevant Chamber President.

Complaints to investigating bodies almost always have to be made within three months of the complained conduct occurring unless exceptional circumstances can be demonstrated for a longer gap.

What about Scotland?

Scotland has its own courts and tribunals system (the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service or SCTS). Justice is a devolved matter and therefore the First Minister and Lord President of the Court of Session oversee judicial discipline rather than the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice.

Complaints about judges presiding in Scottish courts, or in devolved tribunals, should therefore be directed to the Judicial Office for Scotland.

The notable exceptions are for office-holders in reserved tribunals (which are usually but not always GB-wide). Complaints about reserved tribunal members (whether legal or non-legal members) should be made to the relevant tribunal president.

What about Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland has its own courts and tribunals system. Like Scotland, it therefore also has its own separate system of complaining about judicial misconduct. Under the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland has overarching responsibility for judicial discipline.

Complaints about judges presiding in Northern Ireland’s courts and tribunals should be directed to the Complaints Officer of the Judiciary of Northern Ireland.