Setting the stage: John Kimbell QC is one of the 32 deputy High Court judges appointed in 2018
Each year since 2016, the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) has run a competition to select around 20 deputy High Court judges. Deputies sit for 30 days a year and are paid a daily fee. The appointment is for a fixed term of four years.
Among the attractions of this post for me was the opportunity to do intellectually challenging work from a far wider range than from my commercial practice; a chance to experience the reality of work as a judge ‘behind the scenes’; working in the public sector and for the public interest rather than private gain; and a chance to see the litigation process from a different perspective.
In 2017, the Judicial Diversity Committee introduced a programme aimed at those from social backgrounds currently under-represented in the judiciary; namely those who attended a state school or were the first person in their family to attend university. I fell into both categories and found the programme of seminars and judicial sitting-in extremely helpful in preparing my application. I would strongly recommend this to any applicant.
The challenges: stage by stage
Each of the three stages of the JAC deputy High Court judge competition is challenging in its own way. Assistance from a consultant on how to frame your competency framework examples is, in my experience, invaluable in passing the first stage.
To pass the next stage, which is a telephone assessment based on a reported case or an article, you need to know the case or article backwards but also demonstrate that you can see the bigger picture in the issue under discussion. What gives it a rather unfamiliar feel is that you are assessed by telephone by three people (a High Court judge and two lay panel members) without the benefit of any the visual clues which we rely upon in real life.
The most difficult part of the final stage is the role play. The JAC clearly puts a lot of effort into this part of the process. Having experienced it twice, the scenario is very cleverly structured and the actors who take part are very well briefed. It is designed to test how applicants deal with unexpected situations whilst remaining focused on the set task of conducting a hearing. The main tip I would give for this last section is to make yourself treat the role play as a real hearing. I thought of it as my first day sitting as a deputy.
Overall, I would say it helps to remember it is a competition. Expect not to succeed the first or second time. The process is so well thought out that you will get something valuable out of it whatever happens.
John Kimbell QC was a research assistant at the Law Commission and a law teacher at King’s College London before qualifying as a barrister in 1995. He sits as a commercial and maritime arbitrator in London and Hamburg and was appointed a deputy High Court judge in 2018.
Competencies are the key: recently appointed JAC Commissioner Brie Stevens-Hoare QC shares tips
Becoming a JAC Commissioner has been a steep and fascinating learning curve. The JAC’s statutory role is to select the very best available candidates for judicial office and it is committed to ensuring that the high quality of our judiciary is maintained.
What roles am I eligible for?
If you are five years’ Call you will be eligible for most fee-paid legal vacancies. For more senior appointments you generally need to be seven years’ Call and for full-time appointments, you usually need some sitting experience. From the JAC’s point of view your background or specialism does not limit the range of roles open to you.
Your judicial career can start in the courts or the tribunals, at a variety of levels. Increasingly, people start their judicial career earlier and progress through a number of appointments. Fee-paid posts are an excellent opportunity to try it out and gain the sitting experience to see if a full-time appointment is for you.
The Bar is currently the largest professional group participating in JAC competitions. The JAC works with the professional bodies to encourage and support applications from the widest possible pool of candidates. Those from under-represented backgrounds and others who may not have traditionally seen the judiciary as a career option are encouraged.
On the JAC website you can find selection exercises and materials to help you prepare. The Forward Programme shows the cycle of selection exercises. Upcoming exercises in 2019 include: Deputy High Court judge, Circuit judge, Fee-paid judge of the First-tier tribunal, District Judge and Deputy District judge.
At the heart of your application is evidence of your competencies or skills. You need examples of situations where you have used those skills. Short, clearly recounted descriptions of a situation, what you did and the outcome are the key. The focus needs to be on the ‘what you did’.
Tips for preparation
- Prepare thoroughly: a strong application demonstrating evidence of your skills takes time.
- Subscribe to the monthly JAC newsletter and sign up for email alerts on exercises that you’re interested in.
- Follow @becomeajudge on Twitter.
- Join the Judicial Shadowing Scheme run by the Judicial Office.
- Study the competency frameworks.
- Take the Am I Ready? test, watch the video and read the case studies on the JAC website.
- Gather examples demonstrating each of the competencies as they happen. Note the situation, what you did and the outcome. They can be from a non-legal context. Ask a trusted colleague to review them.
- Identify your independent assessors (referees). You will need two, which can be professional, judicial or a mixture. They need to know your work well and give evidence or examples demonstrating your competencies.
- Volunteer as a JAC dry-run candidate. You will get familiar with the process along with practice and feedback.
The selection process is rigorous and competitive. Being well prepared and engaged will help you. It may take more than one application to be successful. Having another go can mean you are even better placed to evidence that you are both selectable and the best available.
Brie Stevens-Hoare QC is a JAC Commissioner and Fee-paid judge of the First-tier Tribunal. The JAC selects candidates for judicial appointment in the courts and tribunals in England and Wales and for some tribunals with a UK-wide jurisdiction.