There is no existing published source which systematically reports even the most basic personal, social and demographic characteristics of judicial officers in Australia. A major focus of the Magistrates Research Project and the Judicial Research Project has been an ambitious survey program, beginning with a survey of magistrates in 2002, followed by a survey of the rest of the judiciary in 2007 and a second survey of the magistrates in 2007.

National Survey of Australian Magistrates 2002
National Survey of Australian Magistrates 2007
National Survey of Australian Judges 2007

For more information about the surveys:

 Planning the surveys

In planning the surveys, the researchers consulted widely with relevant organisations and individuals including magistrates and judges from courts at all levels and in all states and territories, with the Council of Chief Magistrates, the Council of Chief Judges, the Council of Chief Justices, as well as individual Chief Judges and Chief Justices and the Chief Federal Magistrate (now the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court), the Association of Australian Magistrates (AAM), the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA), the National Judicial College of Australia (NJCA), the Judicial Conference of Australia (JCA), the Judicial College of Victoria and the Judicial Commission of New South Wales.  These consultations had several goals:

To ensure that the major concerns and interests of the judiciary were addressed in the survey questions, so that the findings are valuable to courts and judicial officers as well as to wider audiences.

  • To establish rapport and general goodwill towards the survey, to maximise the response rate and therefore the validity of the research findings.
  • To emphasise the anonymity and confidentiality of survey responses.

In addition to the consultation described above, we undertook a substantial literature review of socio-legal research into the judiciary, especially the lower courts, as well as considering legal cases and legal commentary, legislation, statistics and government reports on criminal and civil matters in magistrates courts, to generate a national picture of the operation of magistrates courts in Australia.  We also examined other survey instruments, such as the Professions in Australia Surveys, surveys of judicial officers conducted in other places and/or for more limited purposes, and Australian Census and other Australian Bureau of Statistics material.

Areas addressed in the surveys

All three surveys addressed the same areas, reflecting issues raised in the consultations and identified through the literature review and analysis of other material:

  • Current position as a magistrate/judge.
  • The work of a magistrate/judge.
  • Job satisfaction.
  • Career background, including education and employment/work history.
  • The relationship between work and other activities.
  • Demographic information.

Why conduct surveys?

A survey enables the collection of the same type of information from a large number of different people, and so produces findings that are much more reliable than anecdotes or individual impressions.  The responses to the completed surveys are combined and the results presented as percentages or proportions of the respondents, without identifying any individual respondents. Since the same type of information is collected from each participant, it is possible to analyse the responses to compare the views or attitudes of different groups surveyed, such as magistrates compared with judges of supreme courts, or judicial officers in state courts compared with those in Commonwealth courts.

These surveys were conducted as a mail back questionnaire. The questionnaires include both open-ended and close-ended questions.  Some close-ended questions involved scaled responses (eg Likert scales); others expressly asked for elaboration or specific examples of the particular choice indicated. Some questions in the survey relate to behaviour, others to beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and attributes.  All surveys, including pilot testing and supporting documentation, were approved by the Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee of Flinders University.

Value of this survey research 

Until this Project, there has never been a comprehensive national social survey of the Australian judiciary.  As stated in Lee and Campbell The Australian Judiciary, the information from current publicly available sources “… certainly does not provide an adequate foundation for any worthwhile sociological study of the judiciary” (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed, 2013, p 35). A distinctive feature of this research is that it draws on information provided by judges and magistrates themselves, rather than other sources.  At the same time, the findings are independently analysed and reported.

The research findings have significant value to the judiciary, to the community and for government in developing appropriate policies in areas such as recruitment, selection, appointment, training, education and court management, including issues of work allocation, hours, out of court work, working conditions and expectations.  Specific examples include:

Information about areas of job satisfaction and stress is of considerable importance to the judiciary and the public that they serve.  The survey identifies areas of judicial stress that may be amenable to change as well as identifying aspects of judicial work that are satisfying.

  • Identification of tasks undertaken outside court sitting, which are a necessary part of judicial work, is important for appropriate management of court workload and staff and for public understanding of the work of courts.
  • Being a judge or magistrate can be experienced as lonely and isolating, compared with the interaction experienced in other legal occupations.  The results of this research enable individual members of the judiciary to understand how their experiences and attitudes compare with others on a national basis.
  • Knowledge about the skills and qualities which judges and magistrates identify as crucial to their work is valuable for those who may be contemplating a judicial appointment, as well as for appointment decisions and for professional development programs.
  • There is no longer a single track into the judiciary.  Becoming a judge or magistrate is now a career path for legal practitioners from various practice settings and legal employment.  Some newly appointed judges and magistrate may not have previously spent large amounts of time in a court.  Accurate information about career background and current job satisfaction provides a useful basis for recruitment, for pre-appointment or orientation information, and for judicial education and training more generally.
  • Information about the relationship between work and other activities provides independent data on issues of particular concern for some judges and magistrates. These concerns may result in an increased demand for part-time work or appointment of acting judges.  Such developments challenge accepted ideas of judicial independence or create internal management issues.  This research provides independent Australian data regarding the judiciary on questions where there is considerable overseas and Australian research on balancing career and family responsibilities among people in professional occupations.
  • As these surveys are national, there is no problem of taking information from one jurisdiction and trying to apply it to a different location or situation.

Anonymity and confidentiality

Responding to any or all of the questionnaire was completely voluntary.  There is no tracking mechanism that in any way records the identity (directly or indirectly) of survey respondents.  This means that the researchers have no way of knowing who did and did not respond.

Only the researchers and their assistants have access to actual survey replies, which are anonymous. Results have been tabulated and reported in summary form, and quotes from open ended responses have also been reported. No-one in the courts or government has or will have access to any of the replies, which remain anonymous and confidential.

Some questions ask about demographics such as age or gender; these are standard questions in surveys of this type.  The demographic information sought is based on census categories and allows the magistrates and judges to be described in objective terms. Information of this type is of interest to the judiciary and to the wider public.  It will help to refute inaccurate stereotypes of judicial officers in the community.

Survey respondents sometimes express concern that they can be identified by a combination of distinctive characteristics which they describe in survey responses. Such identification would be very unlikely in the National Survey of Australian Magistrates or the National Survey of Australian Judges.

In order for someone to make the inferential analysis that would enable identification of an individual respondent, the reader would have to go through the survey booklet as a whole, making an active effort to link information in different sections [eg age, jurisdiction, gender, professional background] with other known information about a particular person.  We do not do that.  It is not the goal of the surveys and is directly in conflict with our professional, ethical and personal commitment to confidentiality. In addition, we know very little about the more than 1000 judges and magistrates across Australia. A combination of information in the survey that might appear to identify a particular respondent, such as age, ethnicity, professional background, and gender, will not identify that judicial officer to the researchers, and no one but the researchers and their staff will see the actual survey booklets.

The survey responses are analysed statistically.  Each survey booklet returned is logged and given a number.  The responses are then entered into a computer program, by question, so that we can say, for example, that, of those who responded to a particular question, 10% agree, 40% are neutral and 50% disagree. Responses to open-ended questions, such as those asking for more general comments, are typed up creating a list of all answers to a given question. These responses are then categorised, to enable us to say that, say, 40% of respondents provided additional information or thought about something in a particular way.  Different sections can be linked, so that we can compare the views of magistrates with judges, or the views of women with those of men.

None of this analysis identifies individual respondents, and are careful in our reporting not to inadvertently reveal combinations of information which might enable others to make an identification.  For example, a report might say that 80% of respondents expressed a certain view and illustrate that view with a quote from a survey response. Any information about the characteristics of the respondent whose survey was the source of the quote will not enable identification.

Sometimes, people think they can guess, or infer, where a quote is from, but there is not enough information provided from the surveys to enable this to be done.  Indeed, survey respondents have been known to complain of being misquoted, when the quote was from another respondent altogether.  There is relatively little that can be done about this, beyond maintaining the careful practices described above.

Because responding to any or all of the survey is completely voluntary, some participants may not have answered all questions. Responding only to some questions does not invalidate the survey, as the response rate for each question is part of any report on the data collected.  The overall value of the survey is, of course, much greater if more people respond, as the information provided will be more comprehensive.