International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Spring 2014 Issue

Global Judicial Dialogue


Considerations About Judicial Training

Andrew Aall McPherson

By: Andrew Aall McPherson

Judicial training is a growing field. Ever since the first judicial training institutes were established in the 1950s and 1960s, each decade has seen an expansion in the number and diversity of training institutions throughout the world. In recent years, judicial training has become an increased priority for international donors as well as national governments. By promoting the rule of law, judicial training is seen as a means to bolster broader judicial reform efforts and foster both economic development and human rights.  However, judicial training programs can be difficult to implement effectively. As new judicial training institutions and initiatives are being created more and more frequently, it seems prudent to provide an overview of some of the best practices in this field.

Judicial Training in Context

Judicial reform often represents a daunting task. There is no magic combination of policies and procedures that will create a well-functioning judiciary. Rather, an effective judiciary relies on a combination of factors for success, including constitutional history, judicial culture, existing infrastructure and institutions, and the capacity of individual judges. When implemented effectively, judicial training initiatives can support reform efforts in a number of these areas. There is a large gulf, however, between the results of the best judicial training efforts and the least effective ones. Much forethought must be put into any judicial training effort in order to yield desirable outcomes. In particular, planners should be highly sensitive to the particular context of the legal system, and should not be quick to assume that models which have been successful elsewhere can be easily replicated.

While it is common practice to divide the legal systems of the world into common law, civil law, Islamic law, and others, these divisions are not as definitive as one might assume. Once established, legal systems have had a tendency to evolve beyond their origins, adopting practices and legal theory from other jurisdictions where appropriate. Thus, many legal systems today show characteristics belonging to a diversity of legal traditions. Nonetheless, the distinction between civil and common law remains a valuable starting place when considering judicial training practice. In general, judges from common law systems are typically drawn from members of the practicing bar. In civil law countries, by contrast, judges tend to be appointed shortly after graduation from law school. This means that the training needs and infrastructure for these two systems is very different. While the provision of training for new judges is desirable regardless of jurisdiction, the training needs of new judges in civil law countries are likely to be more significant and more diverse than those from common law countries.

It should be no surprise then that France, one of the main proponents of the modern civil law system, created the world's first judicial training school, the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature (ENM). In doing so, France was responding to the specific needs of its legal system. Judges in France begin their careers after their formal legal education and will typically spend their entire lives within the judiciary. They require extensive training before they can be entrusted with the responsibilities that the role demands. Today, the ENM program for new judges, which includes lectures, practicum, and placements, spans 31 months. This program is well designed to provide inexperienced legal practitioners with the knowledge and skills they need to become competent members of the judiciary. As might be expected for such a comprehensive educational initiative, though, the ENM's program is also fairly cost-intensive.

There is a tendency to think of judicial training schools like the ENM as the “gold standard” in judicial training. It would be more useful, perhaps, if we view these training schools as a specific response to their particular context. It makes sense for the French government, for instance, to invest significant funds into the development of judges if it is reasonably sure that the individuals it is training will remain in the judiciary throughout their career. The same investment is harder to justify in a common law system in which legal practitioners move in and out of the judiciary at different points in their careers. Many common law systems have therefore established judicial training schools that are less comprehensive, but are nonetheless highly effective within the context of the system in which they operate. Indeed, some countries are able to operate with little more than an ad hoc judicial training infrastructure, where a very limited number of full-time staff organizes periodic training according to judicial need. Thus, instead of focusing on the scale of judicial training, we should focus on two factors: (1) the extent to which judicial training is responsive to the legal context, and (2) whether the actual training provided is effective.

Training Content

Given the fact that judges have only so many hours a year that they can devote to attending training programs, it is extremely important that such programs emphasize teaching subjects that will most effectively fill gaps in judges' capacities and develop essential judicial skills. Unfortunately, the selection of the subject matter for judicial education programs is not always handled efficiently.  Broadly speaking, there are two major categories of courses for judges: those that emphasize substantive law and those that emphasize judicial skills. Each area is important for judicial competence, but the relative importance of judicial training in either category will vary depending on the jurisdiction.

In some contexts, for instance, training on substantive law subjects is less necessary, since judges have access to many resources that can assist them with keeping up-to-date on matters of law, such as legal journals, conferences, and pre-existing continuing legal education opportunities. Similarly, in common law countries, judges are often picked from the ranks of experienced legal practitioners. It is likely that they already possess a fair degree of expertise on matters of substantive law. By contrast, there are fairly few venues where judges can learn about trial management, courtroom administration, opinion writing, and judicial ethics. These programs, therefore, would be appropriate for judges from any jurisdiction. New judges may have knowledge about some of these topics when they become judges, but they will benefit enormously from the opportunity to learn about them in-depth alongside other judicial candidates. Even seasoned judges may appreciate the opportunity to learn new perspectives on these issues and to share their experiences with other judges.

Considering Judges as Trainees

Regardless of whether a training program is on substantive law or judicial skills, careful attention should be paid to the actual training implementation. A lecture-style training is unlikely to be well-received by judges who are, after all, highly knowledgeable professionals. Moreover, judges live through the complexity of legal practice on a daily basis. Education programs that focus purely on the conveyance of abstract legal principles overlook the fact that judges primarily reside in the practical sphere. They are concerned with how these principles will operate in a courtroom once they are implemented. In short, any training program must take into account  judicial ways of thinking and must connect subject matter to judges' personal experiences.  In designing training that incorporate these considerations, trainers can draw on  scholarship related to teaching adults.




Malcolm Knowles was an American educator who devoted his life to the study of how adults learn. Knowles contrasted pedagogy, the science of teaching children, with his concept of andragogy, the science of teaching adults. Knowles' conception of andragogy was based on five assumptions about how adult learning differs from childhood learning:

  1. Self-concept: As a person matures his or her self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.
  2. Experience: As a person matures he or she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to learn. As a person matures his or her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of social roles.
  4. Orientation to learning. As a person matures his or her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his or her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.
  5. Motivation to learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal.

Reviewing these assumptions, we can see how they are relevant to understanding the training needs of judges. Taken as a whole, these assumptions describe a person who is self-motivated to learn, draws from his or her own experience, is problem-focused, has a strong sense of identity, and wants to perform duties effectively. Teaching approaches that do not account for these assumptions are effectively treating their trainees like children, an unwise tactic when addressing judges.

To this end, one important consideration when designing a judicial training program is the identity of the trainer. Serving as a judge is an extremely specialized role without any truly analogous professions for trainers to draw from. Therefore, real consideration should be paid to involving judges in each phase of the training. A training program is more likely to speak to the needs of judges if it has judicial guidance from the outset, and it is more likely to be well-received if it incorporates judges in aspects of the training. This is not to say that the process should be dominated by the judiciary; professional trainers still know best how to design and implement training. But trainers should not presume to be able to speak for judges on judicial issues and should seek assistance and input where appropriate.

Experiential Learning

Malcolm Knowles' five “assumptions” about adult learning styles shaped his ideas about how to teach adults. However, it is important to emphasize that his assumptions about andragogy do not, by themselves, call for a specific teaching approach. They are simply factors for trainers to keep in mind about their trainees as they design programs for adults. However, a number of teaching theories have grown out of andragogy. One of the most relevant theories, for judicial training, is experiential learning theory.

This theory is based on the principle that learning is a continuous phenomenon that is best understood in terms of a process rather than outcomes, and that experience is at the heart of that process. One of the best known theorists on experiential learning is David Kolb, who pioneered a four-stage model for experiential learning. This model is designed to replicate the process that individuals go through as they engage in learning. The cycle begins with concrete experience. The learner interacts with their world and receives feedback based on these actions. They then engage in reflection, which involves dissecting the experience in order to better understand what has occurred. The learner then moves on to the creation of abstract principles. They come to conclusions about what they have experienced. Finally, they seek to apply these principles through experimentation. This experimentation involves interacting with the world once again, and the learning cycle continues.

While Kolb's learning cycle sounds abstract, it is actually fairly simple to adapt to a training context. Working through the Judicial Education Reference, Information and Technical Transfer Project (JERITT), Charles S. Claxton and Patricia H. Murrell, have done an admirable job of adapting the learning cycle specifically to judicial education in their work Education for Development. For judicial education programs, participants should be primed to recall experiences in their judicial practice, asked to reflect on those experiences either collectively or individually, encouraged to formulate general principles which draw on this reflection, and finally given the opportunity to envision how these general principles will play out in practice. Claxton and Murrell give some suggestions for how to foster each phase of the learning process. Experience can be encouraged through recalling relevant memories or by examining case studies. Reflection can be conducted either individually, via journals, or in larger groups. Abstraction can consist of lecturing or use of the Socratic method. And finally, experimentation can be achieved by speculating on the application of these principles through the use of hypotheticals.


A major contributing factor in many successful judicial training initiatives is a robust system for evaluation. The question of how to effectively evaluate education programs in general, and judicial programs in specific, is a complex one. There are a number of different philosophies about what the goals of evaluations should be and how they should be undertaken. It is difficult, then, to give detailed recommendations for best practices on judicial training evaluation. However, there are a few things that trainers and training institutions should keep in mind in order to implement a strong evaluation. First of all, the goals of the training need to be clearly defined at the outset of the program. Without clearly established goals, it is extremely difficult to conduct a meaningful evaluation. Secondly, the evaluation procedure should be defined in detail before any program is implemented. Evaluations conducted after the completion of a program can reveal useful information, but they cannot provide a complete picture of the training. The most effective evaluations are woven into the implementation of educational programs. Finally, planners should be aware of what can and cannot be measured. It can be difficult at times to establish an evaluation procedure that truly measures whether the program achieves its goals. In those cases, it is preferable to state this at the outset, rather than to evaluate the program using measurable that will not accurate assess the successes and failures of the program.


There is much diversity in the means and goals of judicial training. It is difficult to offer  insight that will be applicable across all situations. However, throughout this overview of “best practices” in judicial training, a common thread emerges. Judicial training programs need to be sensitive to their context. The nature of the legal system, the characteristics of the trainees, and the type of learning all need to be carefully considered. Judges have limited time for training, and each judicial training is expensive. Programs that are not carefully constructed to take all relevant factors into account run the risk of irrelevance, and thus do a disservice to both the trainees and to the public that they serve. A program that sets out to simply train judges can be implemented without much forethought or planning. A program that seeks to have impact beyond the training, though, requires deep reflection. 

Andrew Aall McPherson previously worked for World Learning and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative. He is currently studying adult education at the University of British Columbia.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2014 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
IJM welcomes comments, suggestions, and submissions.
Please contact the IJM editor at