Mental Health Of Lawyers & Judges :Need To Shed Stigma

Mental Health Of Lawyers & Judges :Need To Shed Stigma

"The judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts are not immune to this problem. Judges are quite often seen exhibiting impatience, irritability, anger management issues, stubbornness etc. in courts. Such erratic behaviour from persons who are otherwise learned and judicious cannot be dismissed as mere personality issues; they could be pointers to work-induced stress, which is affecting the temperament of judges."

At an event organised by the Centre on Legal Profession, Harvard Law School, in New Delhi in December 2017, Justice DY Chandrachud explored the uncharted ground. There are no empirical studies regarding the mental health of Indian legal professionals even though a lawyer's stressful job exposes him to a significantly higher risk of dysfunctions in this sphere when compared to the general populace, the Supreme Court Judge said. These dysfunctions include depression, anxiety, addiction, bipolar disorder and paranoia as well other, more complicated, disorders.

Belonging to a well-known legal family and a senior advocate in his earlier years, Justice Chandrachud has witnessed the life of a lawyer from close quarters. He held stigma associated with mental illness in India as the reason behind this silence.

I was in the audience when Justice Chandrachud was speaking. Since I had been going through a rough patch, accompanied by stress and stress-induced depression, I could connect with the speech, perhaps more than anyone else present. I am not oblivious to the consequences of openly discussing mental health problems—it can spell professional suicide for a lawyer. Curiously, our procedural laws have acknowledged only two statuses of a human being—'normalcy'and 'insanity'—there is no middle ground. Incidentally, while considering a PIL against ill-treatment of mentally ill patients, Justice Sikri observed, "Someone has rightly said that all of us are only temporarily sane...we might suffer from depression or something...nobody knows when some psychiatric problem may come up"

The carefully-constructed moral standards of our society prohibit people from sharing, discussing and acknowledging the problem. Mental illness is,therefore, yet to be accepted as something which appears in the trajectory of a human life, but is curable and correctable. Though the setting up of student counselling centres in many schools and colleges embodies a welcome change in this outlook, no such help is available to lawyers and judicial officers.

The causes of stress, prolonged anger and depression among legal professionals are numerous. Lawyers generally interact with clients and individuals who are highly stressed themselves. Their busy schedule leaves them with little or no time to attend to the needs of friends and family members. The uncertainty of the work, its demanding nature, fluctuating income, unhealthy competition, big disparity in income levels among those similarly experienced, the need to keep up appearances, high expectations from the court and clients, long working hours—especially in law firms, unhealthy food habits, lack of exercise and poor time management are some of the drivers of mental illness in the Indian legal fraternity.

Judges are equally susceptible to mental health problems. The members of the subordinate judiciary work in a system that can only be compared to a military hierarchy. To them, the high courts' supervision is a continuing court martial. There is demand for more disposals without factoring in issues such as non-cooperation by lawyers and lack of infrastructure. The judges' holidays are spent in Lok Adalats sans incentives, where settlements are not counted among disposals. Social seclusion and constant threat of false complaints by unscrupulous litigants and lawyers exacerbates the situation. Many honest judges are currently living under the shadow of instigated complaints and the fear of their possible mishandling by a hostile supervising judge.

The judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts are not immune to this problem. Judges are quite often seen exhibiting impatience, irritability, anger management issues, stubbornness etc. in courts. Such erratic behaviour from persons who are otherwise learned and judicious cannot be dismissed as mere personality issues; they could be pointers to work-induced stress, which is affecting the temperament of judges.

On several occasions, I have seen sober judges losing their cool in the courtroom over trivial issues. Quite often, the release is followed by an apology by the judge concerned. In India, the work-load of the judges is incomparable to that of their counterparts in other countries. There is a popular perception that judges have more vacation days than necessary. But the truth is that judges work more in their chambers than in the courtrooms.

The level of stress might increase as judges go up the ladder. Handling of sensational cases and their outcome have affected the career of many judges. Some honest judges had to pay a huge price for their orders against powerful political executives. Honest and modest judges may become frustrated, when they see their colleagues reaping career benefits by going the extra mile to please the powers that be. An absolute deference to power whether it is within or outside the judiciary, has become an written norm causing tremendous stress and anger issues.

During selection for judgeship, there is no procedure for assessing the temperament of prospective candidates. Hence, there are chances of those with megalomania or petty ego problems getting selected. This impacts the justice delivery system. I have personally observed instances of how one wrong word uttered by a lawyer, unconnected as it was to the case, has led to its dismissal or long adjournment, bringing great harm to the client. Since we do not have the practice of recording of such instances, the judges, too, never get a chance to reflect on their behaviour and undergo counselling for anger management.

Verily, as Justice Chandrachud has pointed out, empirical studies regarding the mental health of legal professionals and other stakeholders in the justice delivery system are a must, so that the problems are addressed to deliver us a robust, meaningful and constructive judiciary.

(P V Dinesh is an advocate practising at the Supreme Court)