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Their Lordships Are "Also Humans"! : Justice Anand Venkatesh

Justice Anand Venkatesh
28 March 2020 9:39 AM GMT
Their Lordships Are "Also Humans"!  : Justice Anand Venkatesh
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Mental Health in common parlance includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also determines how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life. Positive mental health allows people to realize their potential at its fullest capacity, cope with the stresses of life, work productively and make meaningful contributions to the community. Judges, in particular, undertake the difficult task of handling the problems of others and venture at solving the same in accordance with law. This, they undertake day in and day out, for a long number of years. Synoptically, a judge is assigned with the task of deciding the destiny of a litigant. No wonder he or she is addressed as "My Lord". Every case that comes up before a judge involves the life of a litigant and it is with that sense of responsibility that a judge is expected to deal with each of these cases.

This takes us to the core issue- the mental health of a judge. Does our system focus on this very vital issue? Is there a mechanism which ensures that the mental health of a judge is monitored? Do judges require a periodical counselling from psychiatrists or mental health experts? We have a system which runs the risk of a judge experiencing an unhealthy mental state, dealing with a very sensitive case, which involves the life of a litigant.
This may result in the ultimate decision getting influenced on certain wrong notions, pre-conceived ideas or an individual's belief bias. This critical issue needs to be addressed and the best way to do it, is to start discussing about it amidst the fraternity of judges. A reading of a book titled "Also Human" authored by Caroline Elton, amazed me as this book dealt with a psychologist who has been helping highly successful doctors who are facing various psychological challenges for the past 20 years. Do doctors need counselling from an occupational psychologist? Disease, distress and death are patent facets of a doctor's work life. Doctors are left to witness the ravages of diseases, hear the patient wailing in pain and view the trauma on one's body and mind. What do they experience when they have to tell a parent that they could not save their child's life? They tend to develop a defence mechanism. Systematic reviews conducted on medical residents and doctors have revealed that the environment in which doctors work has had a significant impact on them, resulting in a consistent decline in their ability to empathize with their patients. This book reveals the multitude of psychological challenges faced by doctors and reminds us that they are "human too". The greatness of this book is that, these doctors admit to the fact that they too do undergo psychological distress and are willing to attend to it and get over it with appropriate professional help. This obviously improves their mental health thereby increasing their efficiency.
Upon reading the book, the first thought that struck me was "Aren't judges also humans"? "Are we all performing our task with perfect mental health?" "Don't we  judge cases sometimes based not upon sound logic, but upon already held beliefs?" "Don't we get conditioned in our mind due to the sheer volume of cases we deal with and ultimately lose our sense of empathy?" "How far do our pre-conditioned notions influence our decision-making process?" "Does social distancing dent our capacity to appreciate ground realities?" "Does power get to our head making us feel like Homo Deus and turn us into more rude and unreasonable people?" "Do we, in the name of honesty tend to become plastic and unrealistic and as a result end up coming to wrong conclusions and consequently erroneous judgments?" "Is the work pressure causing mental fatigue which may result in depression, anxiety and attention disorders?" The questions kept flowing and I was left with no other alternative but to consciously bring it to a stop. The core issue to be addressed is whether it is high time that judges should start deliberating about this. We should come out of the denial mode and make a self-assessment of ourselves. The best way to improve oneself is to first admit that there is a problem and to try and find a solution for the same. It has been proven scientifically that there are certain biases at the sub-conscious levels of human mind that are developed from their early days, about which one may not even be aware. One such bias is the "belief bias". Unless one undergoes professional counselling, he or she may not even be aware about the existence of such a bias. We must be real hypocrites to claim that we operate without any bias. Every judge comes from a different background, different religious belief, different family set-up, different value system, different life experiences etc., These factors do influence our understanding and decision-making process. Maintaining neutrality and deciding an issue in an unbiased manner becomes a real challenge. Now there is an added pressure of social media.
As judges we are undertaking a very solemn responsibility of deciding the fate of others. We need to keep our mental faculties razor sharp. One strong bias or conditioned state of mind can result in sending an innocent person to the gallows. Malcom Gladwell in his book "Talking to Strangers" takes us on an intellectual adventure into the darker side of human nature, which entails dealing with strangers. One of the chapters deal with how often judges wrongly gauge an accused person or a litigant who comes face to face with the judge. A judge should always have in mind that judging a stranger is never easy. Take for instance, a criminal case- neither the police personnel, nor the prosecutor, nor the defense counsel have in person been privy to incident and a judge, who neither has seen the incident decides the case. The fate of the person accused of a crime is decided by a set of individuals who have no direct knowledge about the actual incident. The whole case is developed and decided purely on the basis of evidence. It is therefore, very important that appreciation of evidence is done by a judge who is not afflicted by bias, pre-conceived notions, conditions etc.,
There are lots of factors that contribute to a healthy mental state. Judges are "also human" and therefore, it is high time that the judiciary starts introspecting and discussing the elephant in the room more seriously. It is possible to develop programmes which involve counselling by occupational psychologists on a periodic basis. Like our physical health, mental health also requires the assistance of specialists to overcome the malady. It will go a long way in improving our standards which ultimately will make the judiciary a strong pillar of democracy
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