From MPs to medical staff, the risks of public service are increasing

Posted On: 
21st May 2019

If cases of abuse toward those in public service is not tackled, what human talent is our society going to lose because individuals may, understandably, choose not to put themselves or potentially their family at risk?

We live in what appears to be an increasingly challenging world when it comes to fulfilling all manner of public duties, says Sharon Beattie.
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We live in what appears to be an increasingly challenging world when it comes to fulfilling all manner of public duties.

The routine abuse of individuals in social media is well known, the standard of what appears to be “acceptable” comment has, in many cases, reduced public debate to the worst type of bullying.

Twenty years ago, were the concepts of trolling, ghosting, sexting something we all knew about? Probably not.  If the core behaviour existed, it wasn’t in the form that it does now. Outside print journalism, the public didn’t have the facility, or the online presence, to be able to either traduce or demonise you, in front of thousands of people at the click of a button, they do now.

No one is immune or “safe”, be they public servants, police, medical staff or politicians.

They have all been the focus of anger and violence, and we are all aware that the issue of the protection of MPs has been highlighted given the number of threats towards them, particularly, but not exclusively towards females. 

We are all aware of the terrible death of Jo Cox MP, who was targeted because she was doing her job, serving her constituents and serving her country, and therefore, serving us. 

Now, in the midst of the “Brexit” debates, only three years after Jo Cox’s murder; death threats have been made against MPs, by individuals, who don’t agree with their views. The further worry is that we, as a society are not, sadly, even surprised by these crimes.

Similarly, the increase in assaults, particularly on medical staff has been well documented; a study publicised by Unison last year noted attacks on healthcare professionals had risen by nearly 10% over a two-year period.

What are going to be the consequences of this? Would you want to undertake a job where abuse is part and parcel of your daily routine and almost part of the job description? What impact would this have on someone’s mental health?

If this is not tackled, what human talent is our society going to lose because individuals may, understandably, choose not to put themselves or potentially their family at risk?

Twenty years ago despite practicing at the Criminal Bar I had no serious concerns about personal safety. There were some individuals who you would have seen in the cells who were potentially very dangerous or mentally unwell or volatile. 

As Defence Counsel one took sensible precautions, you made sure whenever possible that you were, accompanied by a solicitor or a representative or that you sat nearest the door, a prison officer would hover outside. I never had a real problem. 

Even in the most difficult cases, Defendants, even target criminals, and their families seemed to know the system and accept that you were “just doing your job”, it wasn’t “personal.” 

Sometimes you prosecuted and sometimes you defended, we still do. Counsel, practicing at the criminal bar, provide a valuable public service to our community. Of course, it is not just the criminal bar that this applies to, but the sort of issues above are more readily apparent in this line of work.

Now perhaps in tune with the times, everything seems personal.

Recently I have been the subject of direct personal abuse. It wasn’t pleasant, it was a shock, as it would be for anyone, but I coped with it and it was dealt with speedily and effectively by the court involved, and by the police. 

Are we alone in public service, which is the essence of the publicly funded Bar, in not having a problem with this?

We, as a profession, have a tendency to soldier on, if things like this do happen our default position is to joke about it rather than to complain about it.

However, if we do nothing to record it or do more ensure the safety, not just of ourselves but of junior members of the profession just starting out, are we helping to maintain the recruitment and retention of quality individuals to our ranks?

If barristers are the subject of a crime, there is a clear pathway and response via the police, but it may also be of assistance if this was reported to the Bar Council, or HMCTS to see if there is a problem in particular areas or court centres. 

There may be more “low level” forms of abuse which people experience but are reluctant to report but the level of it should not be determinative as any abuse is not acceptable in any form or to anyone, particularly if it is happening in our place of work.

 

Sharon Beattie is a barrister at New Park Court Chambers.