First steps

One hundred new Recorders sought: Lord Justice Burnett encourages barristers to apply for the 2017 competition and Eason Rajah QC shares his first year’s Recorder experience

The Lord Chancellor has decided that there should be another Recorder competition, which is expected to launch on 1 February 2017.

The brief agreed by the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice requires the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) to find the 100 best potential Recorders, without regard to their current jurisdictional experience. The need is for approximately 70 criminal and 30 family Recorders.

To make sure we can attract applications from the widest pool of talent, we have changed the rules for this selection exercise. Applicants will not have to be a specialist family or criminal practitioner or study the detail of a new jurisdiction to be ready to apply.

We expect a large number of applicants. The 2015 competition attracted 1,250. In 2017 there will be an online multiple-choice test designed to test judgement and critical analysis. Last time that test excluded 60% of candidates. This time it is planned to exclude only 40%.

There will then be a second online test that will be marked by a panel of judges to reduce the numbers further. This will be designed to assess situational judgement; it will not be a yes or no or tick-a-box type test. It will be designed to invite written narrative answers. Thus it will also help to determine whether the candidate is well able to answer the questions succinctly and coherently.

Then it is planned to have a telephone assessment following which about 250 candidates will go for interview and role-play. The telephone assessment will involve analysing a text and answering questions about it. Only those selected for telephone assessment will be asked to complete the self-assessment part of the application and provide details of people who can provide independent assessments (references).

In the previous Recorder competition there was considerable concern that all applicants were required to complete application forms even though, for those who did not get through the initial stages, they played no part in selection. They were also asked to provide details of referees, but those were taken up only in respect of candidates interviewed. The JAC recognised that there are better ways of doing this and has changed the process for 2017.

Those who are nominated as assessors must know the candidate’s work and provide what is called drearily, but accurately, an evidence-based assessment. Please do not be seduced by status.

The tests have been devised and extensively ‘road-tested’ by judges and practitioners from different jurisdictions and backgrounds, taking expert advice, to check that they select fairly on merit. We recognise there were technical IT problems which frustrated some candidates in 2015 and we are as confident as we can be that they have been ironed out.

The roles are open to barristers and solicitors with seven years’ post-qualification experience. We will welcome applications from lawyers from all jurisdictions and all backgrounds.

As with all judicial appointments, applications are encouraged from those groups currently under-represented in the judiciary: solicitors, women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and disabled applicants.

We have not been asked to select candidates for specific geographic locations. We are going to be asked to recommend for appointment the best potential judges – it is as simple as that. Then it will be for the Lord Chief Justice to deploy them. The likelihood is that deployment will be convenient for the successful candidate’s home.

I started my judicial life as a criminal Recorder but was not a criminal practitioner. The pre-JAC appointment system involved filling out an application form and being interviewed. What happens now is more sophisticated but really only a development of what has long gone before. Being a part-time judge is stimulating, worthwhile and can be enormous fun. If you think you have what it takes, have a go.

Further information

For further advice on preparation and how to apply, see here

Contributor Lord Justice Burnett, Vice Chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission

RECORDER EASON RAJAH QC

I have a specialised Chancery practice. I applied in the last Recorder competition in 2015 for both criminal and family, and was appointed in crime in January 2016.

Why a criminal Recorder? Well, there have been no civil Recorder competitions since 2009 and none are planned. It’s the first rung of the judicial ladder, and I thought that I should get on it and see what it was like. And after 25 good years at the Bar, it seemed right to give something back, and an interesting way to do it. Not having a criminal background is not an insurmountable problem. Plainly I have to be prepared to do more homework. What will come naturally to someone who has been practising criminal law for 25 years isn’t going to come naturally to me, but it’s refreshing to do something different from the daily grind and to look at a new area of law. I find it genuinely interesting work, as do the several other Chancery practitioners who sit as criminal Recorders.

In 2015 the online tests were jurisdiction-specific and the reading material for applicants not familiar with crime or family was very onerous. In its feedback on the competition, the Chancery Bar Association voiced its profound concern that the competitions were not providing a level playing field for those with no crime or family experience. The changes made to the application process, and the introduction of non-jurisdiction-specific tests, provide very welcome news. It represents a sea change in attitude to the appointment of Recorders from non-crime or family backgrounds and I hope it means some of those who were deterred by the process from applying, or who applied and were unsuccessful, won’t be put off from considering applying next year.

How do you know you’re ready? You don’t. Nobody’s ever completely sure. Maturity and judgement rather than age and experience is what is required, I would have thought. I read that in the last competition one of the appointees was a youthful 33.

And don’t worry. They’ll train you. If it’s not your jurisdiction you do a week of sitting in with a judge before you do the induction course. Then you have the course itself which is intensive, hard work, but absolutely brilliant. You go in thinking ‘how on earth am I going to do a trial?’ and you come out thinking ‘actually, I can do this’. Then you do another week of sitting in with a full-timer, a prison visit and a visit to a youth offenders’ institution and you’re good to go. I went into court confident.

There is a huge amount of support once you are actually sitting. There is material for all judges – a Crown court compendium on how to run a trial, how to sum up particular issues, how to sentence; then you have the sentencing guidelines which are a reassuring crutch, and you have the advice and support of all the full-timers in the court where you are sitting.

Most courts are migrating onto the Digital Case System which means you can access the case files and do your pre-reading from home. I was advised by a High Court judge to sit in school holidays – you’ll probably get home earlier then you normally do and you will see more of your children. This does not mean that sitting is easier than practice. It is hard work, with time pressures. You have to be ready to sum up when the evidence is finished, which means you will probably have work to do after court every day. But it’s nice to be able to do that from home.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year as a Recorder. If you’re thinking about applying, I commend it to you.

Contributor Eason Rajah QC, Recorder and Ten Old Square

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Lord Justice Burnett

Lord Justice Burnett, appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal in 2014, is Vice Chairman of the JAC. He was an Assistant Recorder and Recorder, before appointment as Deputy High Court Judge and High Court Judge in 2008.