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Case study: District judge (magistrates’ court) Tan Ikram

7 August 2019

Tan Ikram explains how he progressed from solicitor-advocate to district judge in the magistrates’ court. He also advises solicitors thinking about joining the judiciary to prepare thoroughly for the competitive selection process.

Can you describe your current judicial role and the route you took to get there?

I was appointed a full-time district judge in the magistrates’ court in 2010 after having sat part-time for about five years.

I most recently practised as a solicitor-advocate dealing with criminal defence and prosecution work but was previously a magistrates’ court clerk.

I started my judicial career as a parking adjudicator in London (a rare judicial appointment that only requires three years’ post-qualification experience). For a while I also acted as a legal assessor to disciplinary panels of the Nursing & Midwifery Council.

Why did you choose to join the judiciary?

I started my career advising on how to make decisions. Then I spent most of my career persuading courts to adopt the decision I sought – and realised that the time had come where I would actually like the challenge of making the decisions.

I chose a career in criminal law because of a real passion to fight injustice. And what better place to fight it than from within the judiciary?

I also thought I could make a small, but real, difference to people’s lives. In that sense I saw the judiciary as the next logical step from being an advocate.

What skills did you bring to the judiciary as a solicitor?

I bring my individual mix of second-generation immigrant, working-class values from the streets of Slough to a judiciary that’s working hard to broaden its base of experience.

I hope I also bring the common sense, logical thinking and plain talking of having been a practising solicitor, plus the experiences of my own neighbourhood, to the difficult task of administering justice in a diverse and increasingly polarised society.

What skills do you think you’ve developed or improved as a result of being a judge?

Since taking up the position, I’ve had to carefully think again about my own prejudices and stereotypes, and open my mind to environments I’ve had little experience of.

But most challenging has been reflecting, again, on my own role in striving to ensure that justice is done in a system that I sometimes feel undermines justice itself.

What qualities do you think are important for judges today?

A strong sense of wanting justice to be done, independence, a large dose of common sense and an understanding of the realities of the ‘real world’ around us are, I believe, the foundation to a judicial career.

The magistrates’ court is where the general public are most likely to come into contact with the criminal courts and society demands an understanding of ‘us’ rather than the perception of trial by ‘them’, the detached legal classes.

Perceptions are important and the judiciary must reflect society and show they are in tune with the public, yet remain objective to ensure that justice is done without favour.

Knowing your law also helps!

What barriers remain to solicitors entering the judiciary and what should be done to tackle them?

Like many colleagues, I found it hard to juggle a part-time judicial career with the demands of partnership in a large and busy practice.

Part-time office is generally a prerequisite to a full-time position and can suggest a conflict of commitment, especially at a time when law firms struggle.

Aspiring judges need to have an honest discussion with their partners about the added value to the practice of having a part-time judge, and counter any suggestions that the position is necessarily an early exit strategy.

Whatever background we come from, we have to believe that ‘they’ genuinely want people like ‘us’ on the bench.

Too many still believe that ‘I’ do not stand a chance because of background or career path. This resistance is being overcome slowly, but will only genuinely be overcome when the judiciary truly starts to reflect diversity, whether it be more solicitor, women or ethnic minority appointments.

That said, there must be no illusion – only the best candidates, who best fit the criteria for appointment, will be selected. Competition is truly fierce.

What are your three tips for a solicitor thinking about joining the judiciary?

Plan early. Make sure you understand what skills and experience the Judicial Appointments Commission will want you to establish and have a portfolio ready to demonstrate that you hit the mark.

Prepare thoroughly for the intensely competitive selection process you’ll enter into. This would include understanding the demands of the qualifying test and preparing accordingly.

Think widely in terms of your first step on the judicial ladder. Tribunal appointments are as challenging as the courts judiciary and just as rewarding.

Your skills are transferable, so keep a keen eye on the legal press for positions that you might not have initially considered – including those outside the formal judiciary.

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