Joining the judiciary

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Are you ready to become a judge? In the first of a series in which Counsel explores how to join the judiciary, HHJ Usha Karu outlines her own tribunals route and offers an insight into the application and selection processes

When barristers consider applying for judicial appointment they frequently have only one role in mind – Recorder. 


This creates extremely high levels of competition around the role – in the ongoing 2015 exercise there were 12 applications for every post. It was also the first Recorder selection exercise the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) was asked to run by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service since 2011.

Those who looked wider than the Recorder exercise would have spotted recent opportunities on the District Bench, but also in the all too often overlooked tribunals. Tribunal roles are in areas as diverse as trademarks; property; employment; competition; immigration and asylum; social entitlement; war pensions and armed forces compensation; health, education and social care; property valuation and rates; police appeals; tax and agriculture.

A little known tribunal now called “London Tribunals” provided the first quasi-judicial opportunity for me in 1993 (as Parking Adjudicator). Indeed, Mr Justice Hickinbottom, no less, also shares the same accolade. It was a role that fitted easily around my practice as a criminal barrister and working mother. I later went on to become an Assistant Recorder (a role which no longer exists), Recorder and then a Circuit Judge. However, I did not leave the tribunals behind. After becoming a Circuit Judge I became a judicial member of the Mental Health Review Tribunal (Restricted Patients Panel). My experience in criminal work was very relevant for this role as patients before the tribunal are often offenders with a mental disorder who are detained in hospital for treatment and subject to restrictions due to the level of risk they pose. It was a transferable skill.

Preparing your application

Transferable skills

Such “transferable skills” are often referred to in JAC information about selection exercises. The JAC is very keen for practitioners to assess their current experience and skills and provide examples of how they are relevant to a particular judicial post. Taking a close look at what the job will entail, and what is expected from the person filling it, is advisable. To this end the JAC competency framework for each role is a good guide.

Observing the process

I cannot stress enough the value of observing the processes in the jurisdiction an applicant is interested in applying for. Observing court proceedings from the public gallery, or, better still, marshalling with a judge to see the issues from their side of the Bench is invaluable. There is also the official work shadowing scheme run by the Judicial Office – see their website.

Many tribunal judges have gone on to apply successfully for courts roles and it is worth knowing that the Crime and Courts Act 2013 allows for appropriately qualified judicial office-holders to move more easily between tribunal and court roles. Sittings can be more flexible in tribunals compared to courts – for example, sittings for shorter blocks of time and/or the option to sit more frequently if desired may be available.

There is a detailed application process for becoming a judge and any applicant would need to ensure that they are ready before putting themselves forward. While the minimum post-qualification experience required is five years for fee-paid First-tier Tribunal judge posts, and seven years for Recorder, many candidates applying will have much more experience than this.

Am I ready?

The JAC has launched three new tools on their website called ‘Am I Ready?’ to assist a potential applicant to assess anonymously both their eligibility and suitability for entry level legal judicial roles (). They involve answering questions on:

  • Eligibility – do you meet the statutory eligibility requirements for fee-paid legal judicial roles?
  • “Good character” – do you meet the JAC’s guidance on “good character”? The JAC has a statutory duty to select people for appointment who are of good character.
  • Suitability – what decisions would you make in various situations you may face as a judge? These questions are similar to the ones used in some qualifying tests at shortlisting and so can also provide useful preparation for that stage of the selection process.

“Am I Ready?” is a set of simple tools which cannot cover all the requirements of a particular exercise. Scores are not generated or recorded. At the end of each tool there is a summary screen telling the applicant whether they are suitable/eligible to apply and providing suggestions on what action they may want to take next. It is not an essential first step to an application but it is a worthwhile exercise. Even if the feedback suggests they are not yet ready to apply, that is not a bar to an application being made.

The tools also cannot indicate whether an applicant is likely to be selected for appointment. Familiarity with the particular jurisdiction – as highlighted above – and also with the JAC selection processes, however, is an excellent way forward.

JAC selection processes

Most selection processes for fee-paid judge positions have the same basic structure. First an online application through the JAC website must be completed. Previous candidates have said that the most difficult part is the self-assessment where an applicant must provide specific and clear examples of their experience that demonstrate each of the competencies that have been identified for the role. Guidance on self-assessments is available on the website. In addition two referees need to be identified. The key here is to consider who knows your work best rather than whether the individual is a judge or holds some other senior position. They, too, are required to provide evidence based examples of the competencies. Videos on the JAC website along with detailed guidance are available to assist. Referees will not be contacted unless a candidate is shortlisted.

The qualifying test

The first stage of shortlisting is usually by qualifying test and there may be more than one part to the test. In the most recent Recorder exercise there were three distinct elements to the test: technical legal knowledge; situational judgment (putting the candidate in typical situations that they may face as a judge) and critical analysis (assimilating information and answering questions based on that information). The highest scorers proceeded to a second shortlisting stage involving a written assessment on a situation a Recorder may face and a review of the self-assessment part of the application form. By having more than one shortlisting stage the JAC was able to reduce candidate numbers more gradually, which also increased the certainty in the quality of those getting through to the “selection day” stage. Any potential applicant can apply to sit a “mock” test with the JAC, which is good experience for when the time comes to do the real thing. Please note though that taking a mock test will disqualify the person from applying for that particular exercise. Opportunities are published on the JAC website.

The selection day

The selection day for fee-paid judge roles always includes an interview. Much of this involves giving examples to evidence the competencies for the role and therefore the guidance above on completing the self-assessment part of the application applies. Again, a video giving insight into what to expect from a JAC interview is available on the JAC website. Selection days for fee-paid roles also involve a role play or situational questioning. A role play requires a candidate to take on the role of a judge in a simulated court or tribunal situation with actors playing the other parts. A film of a role play is available on the website. Situational questioning involves questions that describe a hypothetical situation based on challenging, real-life, job-related occurrences and the candidate is asked how they would handle the problem. For these parts of the process there is no better preparation than undertaking the aforementioned sitting in/shadowing in the relevant court or tribunal.

Success rates

So what are your chances of success? The overall ratio of applications to selections is around 7:1. In terms of the diversity of recommendations since the JAC was created, women have been selected for 44% of fee-paid judge roles, which is in line with their level in the pool of lawyers eligible to apply for such positions. For black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates the figure is 8%, which is close to their level in the eligible pool (which is the number of women – or black, Asian and minority ethnic – lawyers with the required qualifications and experience for the particular judicial role). Competition is tough but fair and don’t be put off if you are not selected the first time you apply – many candidates are successful on their second attempt. In summary, my advice is to keep an open mind about what roles you apply for and prepare, prepare, prepare.

Contributor Her Honour Judge Usha Karu

 

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Her Honour Judge Usha Karu

Appointed as a Circuit Judge in 2005 and currently sitting at the Inner London Crown Court, HHJ Karu is one of the two Diversity and Community Relations Judges for Inner London Crown Court. She is the coordinating Judge for Judicial Mentors for Recorders for the London area as well as the New Recorders Training Judge at the Inner London Crown Court, and a judicial member of the Mental Health Review Tribunal (Restricted Patients Panel).