In 1973 two professors at the University of California published a seminal paper and introduced the idea of ‘wicked problems’ into the vocabulary [1].

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber proposed that the search for a scientific basis for confronting problems of social policy was bound to fail because of the nature of the problems themselves.

They termed these ‘wicked’ problems.

Rittel’s field was the science of design and Webber’s, city planning. They argued that science had developed to deal with ‘tame’ problems and that policy problems could not be definitively described. It made no sense to talk about ‘optimal solutions’ to social problems unless severe qualifications were imposed first. Even worse, there were no ‘solutions’ to ‘wicked’ problems in the sense of clear and objective answers.

More recently two academics from Wales proposed using the concept of wicked problems to frame examination of a decade and a half of UK mental health policy [2].  Ben Hannigan and Michael Coffey argued that modern health care is complex and mental health care particularly so.

In the UK the mental health system has also become a policymaking priority. Features of the system mean that many of the problems policymakers face are of the ‘wicked’ variety.

Wicked problems are resistant.

Formulations of policy and their solutions are debatable. Solutions which have worked in one setting may not work in another and evidence to guide change is open to challenge.

I believe that the high incidence of mental illness in the legal profession can be regarded as a wicked legal problem.

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems” [3].

Over the last decade the issue of mental illness in the legal profession in the UK and worldwide has grown in attention.

A substantial amount of literature has been published on the topic. There is growing awareness in different areas and branches of the profession of the significance of wellbeing and mental health.

It is undeniable that ‘there can be no health without mental health’, in the words of one current campaign.

A detailed study carried out recently on behalf of the UK Council for Psychotherapy concluded that good mental health is far more valuable than was once thought and that having either depression or anxiety is around five times worse than the worst physical health condition for peoples’ subjective wellbeing [4].

However, when one tries to assess the factors that contribute to good mental health the position becomes complex …




[1] Rittel, H. W. J. & Webber, M. W. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

[2] Hannigan, B. & Coffey, M. (2011). Where the wicked problems are: the case of mental health. Health Policy 101, 220-227.

[3] LawCare (2012). LawCare’s Stress in the Legal Profession Survey.

[4] Fujiwara, D. & Dolan, P. (2014) Valuing mental health: how a subjective wellbeing approach can show just how much it matters. London: UKCP.


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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