Something I dread every year is the annual appraisal, where a district judge observes us in court and at the end of the day provides written and oral feedback. In the first year of appointment there are two appraisals.
Whilst it is true to say that once the list gets underway you are too busy and absorbed to be overly conscious of the appraiser, it is still a daunting experience, knowing you are being watched and your every flaw is exposed. We all make mistakes and can only do our best, but they are also more likely with additional nerves and pressure on the day. I always feel that if only I had more time, my judging would be better, I would be able to research the law more fully and have it at my fingertips, also my decisions would sound more articulate, but the reality of this job is that we don’t have the luxury of time and we are all in the same boat.
We have to make numerous different decisions in the course of a day under pressure, read vast amounts of material with little time to do so and make instant judgments that are just and sound. They don’t have to be (indeed can’t possibly be) perfect. The appraisal is not intended to catch us out or to find fault, but to be a constructive and supportive process, identifying what was done well and what requires improvement. There is always the challenge of nightmare cases and difficult litigants, but that is the risk and unpredictability of sitting life.
I know deputies who welcome appraisals, because we work in such isolation, it is an opportunity to find out how we are progressing, to learn more and to seek advice. As much as I acknowledge the sense of this approach, I still find them incredibly stressful, knowing everything I say and do is being scrutinised and anticipating negative feedback. Thankfully, they have not been as awful as I feared. I have also learned lots and left with useful tips for the future.
I have only ever found district judges to be supportive and helpful, they want to have competent deputies they can rely on. AND I assume they see us as an investment, as potential full time colleagues in the future. They have also been in our shoes and understand exactly what we are going through. Similarly, my mentor has been a lifeline for advice, reassurance, knowledge and wisdom. Mentors will happily discuss appraisals and receive a copy direct from the appraiser.
From day one, I have maintained a growing file of notes that I take to court with me. This includes notes from the induction training and updates, articles from the Gazette, newspapers or online, on topics I come across in court, recent decisions, tips on approach and anything else that I learn on my journey - at a sitting, from a course, a colleague or from an appraisal. I keep a file for civil work divided into handy sections (possession, enforcement, case management, costs etc.) another for family (divorce, ancillary relief, TOLATA and injunctions) and a third for private law (Children’s Act cases) which are life savers, providing quick and easy reference material if I come across something new or tricky, or even need a reminder.
The problem with sitting part-time and with the wide jurisdiction of the county court, is that we come across new issues constantly, we may be determined to remember how to deal with them again but then not face them for months or more, by which time the detail has been forgotten. I always ask for a copy of my list before the day because although it can change (cases may be vacated, emergencies slotted in or cases moved from other judges’ lists) it tells me what lies ahead, is an aid to my preparation and informs me what files I need to bring.
My notes are also a vital part of preparation for appraisals.The key is to try to treat them like every other sitting day and to fully take on board with an open mind, the feedback provided afterwards, which I then keep my own record of in that trusty file and revisit routinely. Sometimes feedback is a reminder of the simple things like not forgetting to record and announce every case, to summarising what it is about before it starts, making eye contact with parties, giving reasons for one’s judgments, it can be helpful advice on the law and reported decisions, or even just a constructive discussion about a particular case, how it was handled and how improvements could be made.
Anyway, with my appraisal done, that particular nightmare is over for another year and with the assurance that I am doing a good job, I feel enthusiastic about the future.