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Mindfulness for judges promotes compassion in courtrooms

If judges received mindfulness training to learn to slow down and live in the present moment, they could help create compassionate courtrooms that would reduce stress and be a healthier environment for lawyers and their clients, says Toronto-area family lawyer Nicolle Kopping-Pavars

The justice system could possibly function better if more judges knew how to step back, take several deep breaths and really observe what’s happening both within themselves and others, says Kopping-Pavars, principal with NKP Law

“A courtroom can only be compassionate if the leader of the courtroom is compassionate," says Kopping-Pavars, a strong advocate for mindfulness training and a mindfulness-in-law teacher. 

Courtrooms today are nerve-wracking environments, often populated with bickering lawyers and overworked judges, she says. 

“Lawyers go to court and they have litigation hangover the next day,” Kopping-Pavars says. “You get bashed on by the other counsel. It can be a terrible workplace.”

If judges learned to practise mindfulness through sit-down meditation or some other means, they could act as role models for lawyers who are among the most stressed professionals, suffering high rates of substance abuse and suicide, she says. 

“What if they went into a courtroom and judges already were thinking properly and mindfully?” she asks. "The judge might say, ’You’re here to ask me to come to a resolution so I encourage you to have respect for the process and for each other.’” 

Kopping-Pavars points to an article called “Mindfulness and Judging” by U.S. District Judge Jeremy D. Fogel in which he writes that practising mindfulness can have profound effects on others and can improve judicial decision-making.  

“In essence, it involves slowing down one’s mental processes enough to allow one to notice as much as possible about a given moment or situation, and then to act thoughtfully based on what one has noticed,“ Fogel writes.

“Mindfulness is not just about meditation but a meditation practice is a big component of mindfulness”, Kopping-Pavars says. “When you meditate it is actually just being present in the moment.” 

She notes that mindfulness, as defined by internationally known scientist, writer and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, is learning how to understand your mind by focusing your awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting your own feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.  

When you are mindful you can think differently because you create space between thoughts, she says. You are calmer, more aware of how you are feeling and better able to notice how others are feeling.

“Mindfulness is listening and hearing in a particular way,” she says. "It’s talking in a particular way because you’ve now got the mind space to do that.”

For instance, if you are confronted by a particularly annoying lawyer, instead of becoming defensive you can see that maybe he is just having a bad day, Kopping-Pavars says. 

“It just allows you to say: ‘Maybe it’s not all about me,” she says. "Maybe I should listen to more than just what he is saying. What’s his body language? What’s really happening?’” 

Kopping-Pavars believes mindful judges would have a beneficial “trickle-down effect” on lawyers and their clients, and a “trickle-up effect” could follow as a new generation of emotionally healthy barristers and solicitors populate the profession.

This change would obviously require a buy-in from judges, Kopping-Pavars says. 

One possible first step would be to set aside one of the dispute resolution rooms that already exists in courthouses to be a “compassionate room” presided over by dispute resolution officers trained in mindfulness, she says. 

Although some judges might resist the concept of mindfulness training, they could be convinced if they were shown the personal benefits, for instance how it could increase their ability to deal with stress and think reflectively, she says.

“Judges are professional decision-makers,” Kopping-Pavars says. “But they need to be skilled at understanding who, what and why the people are in their courtroom. Only if you have compassion can you have empathy and only then can you truly understand what's going on.” 

 

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