Manchester City Council

Cheshire East Council

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Judgment day

Have you ever thought of joining the judiciary? Suffolk Legal’s Tim Earl, who was recently appointed a deputy district judge, explains what is involved.

When we embark on our legal career, many of us will ultimately aspire to be a judge. However, we can too easily be dissuaded by a combination of factors, such as the commitment required on top of our ‘day job’ and a flawed perception of the type of person the Judicial Appointments Committee (JAC) is after.

Don’t be put off. By working in the public sector, you have already demonstrated your commitment to public service – the foundation of a judicial role.

Combine that with the challenges of being a local government lawyer; the pressures of work in these straitened times; the need to balance competing interests; the far-reaching consequences of our advice; and the scrutiny our decisions can face; and it is clear why you are well placed to step-up to a judicial role.

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Preparing for your application

You need to plan well ahead. The process can take up to nine months from the submission of your application form to the Lord Chancellor’s decision, with any interviews approximately midway through that timescale.

Pore over the JAC website. Make sure you view the videos and read the advice from other appointees.

While being a regular advocate is not considered crucial, you do need to demonstrate an interest and understanding of the court process. Speak to judges and arrange some judicial work shadowing, either directly or through the dedicated scheme. Make sure you do this well in advance of making an application, as the response from the scheme and any offer of dates can be many months in the future.

Approach referees who really know your background and skills. The references given need to be detailed and demonstrate a working knowledge of your skills and attributes.

Think about how you are going to find the time. By way of an example, deputy district judges sit for at least 15 and up to 50 days each year. In the first year there are also five ‘sitting-in’ days and a week-long residential training course to accommodate.

Make sure you speak to your employer. Explain to them the nature of the role you wish to undertake, including the time you will need ‘off’ and the benefits for them as well as you, of having members of the judiciary working within their authority.

Application process

Take plenty of time to complete your application form. This is not something that can be cobbled together at the last minute. Every word counts and must be tied back to the statement of judicial qualities and abilities that forms part of the application pack.

Make sure you focus on strong examples that show how you have acquired skills that are directly transferable to a judicial role. Ensure you mention any previous quasi-judicial experience – I made reference to handling pension appeals for the Suffolk Pension Fund and complaints on behalf of the Probation Trust.

Then there is the timed test. In the DDJ test the chances are that you will get a scenario and questions based on something you either have no, or limited, knowledge of, given the wide range of a DDJ’s jurisdiction. Applications for other roles, such as a tribunal judge, will be more specific.

You should receive some reading materials beforehand which you need to fully comprehend. The test is not designed to look for who has previous experience of that area, but whether you can quickly identify the important issues in a case and make reasoned, evidenced-based decisions in a tight timescale.

Before the test, practise the past papers on the JAC website in a timed way. Read the feedback on past papers and be aware of basic errors that are often made when candidates are exposed to time pressure. Get used to making and recording your decisions in a form that is clear and readily understandable by those marking the examination – bullet points are ideal.

Next, selection day at the JAC offices consists of two elements, the role play and the interview.

The role play (there may be more than one) scenario is provided to you on the day and you are given a short time to prepare. Once shown into the ‘courtroom’ you are the judge.

Everything you do from then on must be designed to show how you can deal with the parties and reach a decision in an equitable and reasoned way. Listen to ensure the parties feel they have received a fair hearing, but ensure that you conclude matters within the limited time available. Make sure you reach a decision – that is your role after all.

The interview takes place almost immediately after the role-plays have finished. Make sure you know the judicial qualities and attributes well and are prepared to give solid examples for each.

Decisions

Once selection day is over, the JAC embarks on a fairly lengthy process of checks to ensure the candidates are of ‘good character’ before recommending appointments to the Lord Chancellor. This can be a frustrating time for candidates, as a wait of three to four months is usual. However, it is all worth it when the letter of appointment is received.

Tim Earl is Head of Legal Services at Suffolk Legal and a deputy district judge

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