Barriers to becoming a judge – fears vs reality

Why do solicitors from less traditional backgrounds often rule themselves out from applying to join the judiciary? Recorder Ayesha Siddiqi and deputy High Court judge Karen Ridge discuss the perceived barriers and share their tips for aspiring judges.
Neither Karen or Ayesha thought they were what the Judicial Appointments Commission was looking for.

Our backgrounds

Ayesha Siddiqi is a woman with curly hair, smiling and the camera (black and white image)Ayesha: For most of my career, I worked as a locum employment law solicitor for local authorities.

I trained at a corporate law firm in London and qualified in 2001, specialising in employment law and corporate immigration. Shortly after qualification, I returned to university and studied for a LLM in Labour Law.

“I was worried about whether I had the ‘right’ experience”

I didn’t realise solicitors could become judges until I met a fee-paid tribunal judge who was on the LLM course with me. She was also a solicitor and actively encouraged me to apply to the judiciary several years later. She is now an Upper Tribunal judge and I was inspired by her career path from solicitor to judge.

I was first appointed as a fee-paid tribunal judge in 2011. I sat in the Immigration Tribunal for seven years. Now, I sit as recorder in the Family Court and the Court of Protection, and as a fee-paid tribunal judge in the Social Security Tribunal and the Mental Health Tribunal.

Karen Ridge is a white woman with short hair, wearing glassesKaren: After qualifying as a solicitor in 1991, I worked in legal aid practices, followed by eight years in local government. I then worked as a civil servant at the Planning Inspectorate for 18 years before leaving to become a full-time portfolio judge.

It didn’t occur to me to apply to become a judge until about five years ago. I thought the work would offer a fresh challenge and decided I might be able to do it because of my previous decision-making experience in planning.

As a planning inspector, I was responsible for conducting public inquiries, and making and writing appeal decisions. It gave me invaluable experience of running proceedings and ensuring that all parties are properly engaged.

I currently sit as a First-tier Tribunal judge (Social Entitlement Chamber) and a recorder in the Family Court. I am also about to start sitting as a deputy High Court judge assigned to Queen’s Bench Division.

Barriers to becoming a judge

Wrong background?

Ayesha: I thought a judicial appointment was beyond my reach. I didn’t know many solicitor judges and I’d never seen any female ethnic minority judges in the Employment Tribunal.

However, once I looked at the competencies for fee-paid tribunal judge vacancies, I realised I had relevant experience to apply.

When I was first appointed, I worried I would feel isolated and wouldn’t meet anyone else with a similar background.

Once I started, however, I met judges from a wide variety of backgrounds and I find colleagues to be really supportive.

Karen: It is vital that under-represented groups apply and succeed, in the interests of a healthy and diverse judiciary.

The numbers of women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic judges in courts and tribunals are gradually increasing. Approximately 50% of tribunal judges and a third of court judges are women. The majority of tribunal judges are solicitors and we hope to keep seeing improvement in the proportion of all these groups in courts, especially in senior roles.

“I didn’t think I would be what the JAC were looking for initially.”

I would encourage anyone interested to apply and to persist with the process. I was rejected on my first applications.

I have been fortunate to have had encouragement from other fee-paid and full-time judges and to have met Ayesha early on, following my appointment as a recorder.

Both the judiciary and the Law Society offer programmes to support applicants from under-represented groups. If you’re thinking about applying, I’d encourage you to find out whether you’re eligible for these and apply as early as possible.

If you don’t have a place on these programmes, there is still a great deal of information about the process on the JAC website.

Not enough courtroom experience?

Karen: I didn’t think I would be what the JAC were looking for initially.

Going through the application process has made me realise they are more interested in relevant skills, and your ability to learn and adapt, than anything else.

At the Planning Inspectorate, I conducted inquiries into planning appeals on behalf of various secretaries of state and I realised this gave me transferrable skills instead of direct courtroom experience.

I was appointed to sit in the Family Court as a recorder, even though it had been more than 25 years since I had set foot in a courtroom as an advocate.

Ayesha: It can feel daunting to apply for a judicial appointment if you don’t come from a litigation background, but I have met many judges who have never done any advocacy.

I was worried about whether I had the “right” experience before I started sitting as a tribunal judge.

At times, I felt out of my comfort zone – particularly as I was working in a different jurisdiction to the one I had practised in – but the Judicial College runs both technical and judgecraft training courses, you soon become accustomed to being in a courtroom, and there’s always someone to ask if you have procedural queries.

Not a barrister?

Karen: Perhaps solicitors don’t have the same networks as barristers, who sometimes have the advantage of seeing colleagues take on part-time judicial roles.

Some solicitors may feel that they need courtroom experience when that isn’t necessarily the case.

As a solicitor you can bring many specific skills to the bench, whether it’s people skills, drafting documents and statements, or focusing on legal arguments.

Ayesha: I think solicitors develop good communication skills, from working with colleagues and advising clients, and this is invaluable when working as a judge.

You can also offer time-management skills. As a solicitor, I learnt how to read and analyse documents or meet multiple deadlines in a particular day, and those skills are useful when it comes to managing your court list for the day or when hearing cases – as evidence is often served late!

Advice for solicitors

Solicitors are still under-represented in recorder and deputy High Court roles.

Ayesha and Karen share their top tips for solicitors considering a judicial career or about to apply, including how they prepared their own applications and what they found helpful.

Don’t rule yourself out

Ayesha: Most of all, I would tell solicitors not to be discouraged from applying.

I thought there would be barriers, but I’ve found colleagues to be supportive, regardless of whether they are solicitors or barristers.

Karen: Just have a go and see what happens, ask existing fee paid and full-time judges for help, and persevere with the applications process. Do not be deterred by initial rejections.

Put in time to prepare

Karen: I’d advise applicants to interrogate the JAC website, focus on the core competencies for past exercises and on providing relevant examples.

Ayesha: It’s important to start preparing examples at an early stage – at first, it can be difficult to think what evidence to use and how to capture your examples within the word limit.

Visit local courts and tribunals to observe public hearings. This can be a useful way to observe how judges manage their lists.

When preparing my own application, I found it helpful to see how different judges dealt with challenging scenarios in a hearing and I was able to use some of the techniques I observed in the roleplay at my interview.

I also did a mock interview with a friend, as I realised that I hadn’t had an interview for years – that practice really helped my technique.

Consider a portfolio career as a judge

Karen: These days, it’s becoming more common for fee-paid judges to hold a mixed tribunal and court portfolio. If you’re thinking of a judicial career, I’d encourage you to consider applying for both fee-paid tribunal and deputy district judge appointments. You can then acquire judicial skills which may assist in your application for more senior roles.