Opinion: Work pressure of judges and public prosecutors

POSTED: 01/31/14 1:14 AM

You’d think that when the independent judge issues a ruling the case is closed. Justice has been done – the men and women in black (with a touch of white) have spoken. But there is an increasing level of concern among judges, and also among prosecutor, about the quality of their own work. No, this sentiment has not reached St. Maarten yet, but what happens on this level in the Netherlands will sooner or later also be felt over here.

The key word everyone is talking about is pressure. Too much work and not enough time to do it properly. One could imagine that a street cleaner – a job as honorable as that of a judge or a prosecutor – may have the same issues: too many streets to clean and not enough time to do them all. But the effects are obviously different. A street that gets the touch of the cleaner a day or two later is something everybody could live with – and there are no dire consequences for anyone.

But judges and prosecutors that feel overwhelmed by the amount of work coming their way – that is a different story, because in the justice business, these people are deciding about the future of citizens that have ended up on the wrong side of the law. And a wrong decision in that field affects real people.

A recent survey in the Netherlands shows that three quarters of all judges and public prosecutors feel that their daily work is under a tremendous amount of pressure. Half of them say that they fear “possible errors of judgment and painful mistakes.

The Dutch Association for the Administration of Justice – the labor union for judges and prosecutors – surveyed its 2,661 members about work pressure. The union says it fears that the high quality of Dutch justice is being undermined by work pressure that is simply too high. It warns for the catastrophic consequences for the society as a whole and for individual citizens seeking justice. That’s heavy stuff coming from a country where everything is neatly organized and seemingly under control.

The conclusions about the high work pressure stem from a study by project leader Ben Fruytier, a lector in labor relationships at the High School if Utrecht, together with the Radboud University in Nijmegen. The survey followed a manifest 700 judges signed in 2012 in protest against the work pressure that they deemed to be too high.

Fruytier sent an extensive list of questions to the members of the union. Of the 2,661 members, 684 returned the query – so they represent 25.7 percent of the total membership. It is unknown whether the remaining 75 percent was not interested in the subject, or too overwhelmed with work to spend time on it.

Anyway, 77.4 percent of the respondents indicate that work pressure has increased during the past couple of years. Let’s examine this number a bit before we go any further. The percentage adds up to (77.4 percent of 684 after all is, say, 530 – that amounts to 19.9 percent of the total membership)

This is not to say that there is no problem. One in every five judges and prosecutors thinks that the work pressure is way overboard and that this could lead to wrong decisions that affect ordinary people.

A report in the Volkskrant assets that more than seven in every ten magistrates consider the work pressure larger than their ability to cope with it. Remember – that’s seven out of ten within the group of 684. Managers speak of excessive overtime and almost a quarter makes 16 hours of overtime a week.

According to the Association for the Administration of Justice it is unacceptable to put the wellbeing of magistrates at risk through a system of structural overtime work. The union wants to talk with the top of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judges about a covenant containing agreements about how to reduce the work pressure.

The survey shows that prosecutors experience higher work pressure than judges. Prosecutors also say more often that they have to make concessions to their work because of the time pressure.

Women experience their work as heavier than men and they are significantly more bothered by frustrations. Magistrates that work in the criminal justice system experience the most pressure, the report shows.

Okay, that was the Netherlands. How does all this apply to St. Maarten? We know that there are budgetary restraints – meaning that the public prosecutor’s office is unable to hire as many people as it needs. Do the line, within the police force and the National Detective Agency the same problems play and the consequences go straight up to the desks of prosecutors and judges. Without too much research, one may assume that work pressure also plays a part in St. Maarten among judges and prosecutors. The question is: who is able to spot the mistakes, and who has the power to correct them?

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