I have a secret to impart, but you will have to wait a bit before I tell it to you.
I was jubilant when, in early 2017, I was appointed a Deputy District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts). I was also very pleased at the number of lawyers who congratulated me. Many commented that my appointment was all the more praiseworthy because I was a solicitor.
Many years ago, when I first walked into a solicitor’s office, to begin what is now called a training contract, although it was in an old, established practice, there were no photographs on the walls of past partners who had gone on to become judges. There was no history of any partners or staff taking on any judicial office.
I became a solicitor, intending (insofar as I thought about the future) to be a solicitor all my working life. I found that I enjoyed criminal law and helping those less able to help themselves and that is where I have practised, with no real thoughts beyond that work.
Contrast that with a new pupil barrister who enters chambers, looking at the photographs that adorn the walls, of former members who have gone on to various judicial offices; the chambers parties and get togethers, at which former members, now judges, attend. Although many barristers never attain judicial office and many never want to, there is a career path to become a judge and there is lots of help available, from judges who were barristers at the same chambers.
For many counsel, being a barrister is a step to some form of judicial office and many are very driven by that very soon after entering chambers for the first time.
Back to me! I practised for decades without a judicial thought in my head. However, there came a time when I thought that I could give more, in some judicial post in the area in which I had specialised for so long, namely criminal law. I applied more than once and, in 2017, I was lucky enough to be appointed.
All appointees to judicial office attend compulsory induction courses. At mine, in 2017, I encountered a breed of person that had never crossed my radar screen: people who were part time judges in more than one jurisdiction, and now they had added this judicial post to their collection. Importantly, they usually had no previous experience in the areas of law they had become part time judges in. Several (mostly barristers) at that induction course had no previous experience in criminal law or magistrates’ courts procedure. What the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) seemed to be particularly interested in was the ability to manage courts and people and get through the business in a professional and respectful way.
Armed with this knowledge, in 2018 I applied to become a fee paid (part time) Judge of the First Tier Tribunal and in 2019 I was appointed as a fee paid judge in the Social Entitlement Chamber. I had no prior knowledge of the relevant law or procedure. The induction course was a steep learning curve, but I was in the same position as almost everyone else on that course.
It follows from this that those considering a possible toe in the water of a judicial appointment do not need to wait decades to gain sufficient knowledge in a specific area of law to apply. The criteria are set out on the JAC website. The minimum Post Qualification Experience is 5 – 7 years.
Notwithstanding all the internal help available to counsel, I know of barristers who have spent a fortune on outside agencies and consultants to get them through the various stages of the competitions as they are called.
One of the differences I have noticed between many solicitors and barristers that I know have applied, is that so many of those solicitors ‘give it a go’ and I include my early attempts in this bracket. Whereas, my experience of most barristers who I have known to apply is the seriousness with which they embark on this stage of their careers. There is a lot at stake. For most of us the money is good and comes with pension contributions – a reason to begin earlier rather than later.
These part time positions require a minimum commitment of 30 sitting days per year. Employee solicitors and Chartered Legal Executives will need to discuss this with their employees and partners with their partners.
If you think that you might be interested, there is a scheme (through the JAC website) of applying to sit in with a judge for the day. If you know anyone who is a judge (part time or full time) in any jurisdiction, it is worth making an informal approach. The next thing to do is register with the JAC, to be notified about future competitions and follow the links on that website to create an account there. You can amend your details when you come to actually apply for a position.
The JAC website (https://www.judicialappointments.gov.uk) also provides much information about the application process and how to prepare for it. This is important. It is too late, when completing an online application form, to be trying to remember relevant examples of when you satisfied this criteria or that one. You need to identify the criteria as early as possible and consider them at the end of every day. Did anything you did that day satisfy any of the criteria? If so, make a note and gradually build up a collection of examples. Not all of mine were from work.
Then approach two potential referees. If they are prepared to be such, give them the criteria that they will have to give examples of, in you. Ask them if they would mind bearing them in mind whenever they see you in action and to make their own notes whenever they see you satisfying any of the criteria. All examples, both from the referees and yourself, should normally be under two years old.
Then there is luck. I know people who failed in the competitions I was successful in who were vastly brighter and more able than I am.
And the secret? I cannot speak as to what it is like to be a Crown Court or County Court Recorder, or a First Tier Tribunal Judge of the Immigration Chamber or other chambers. Whenever I sit, I am very conscious of the privilege it is to be appointed and to the responsibilities involved. However, in those jurisdictions that I do sit, even with all the work involved, it is the most enormous fun! I may end a sitting day exhausted, but I cannot recall any that did not enjoy.
If anyone wants to speak to me about any aspects of what I have written here, please feel free to contact me.
The writer is a partner at Jonas Roy Bloom, solicitors, Birmingham, former President of the Birmingham Law Society and former Chair of its Criminal Law Committee.