Stud relief: a day in the life of a judge
In my 2017 blog, I discussed the importance of careful planning, preparation and consistently taking action when aiming to secure a judicial appointment.
Having commenced sitting as a member of the Valuation Tribunal England (VTE) this spring, in this blog I share my experiences of the first three months in the role and offer a solicitor's perspective from the other side of the bench.
The induction process: Training and shadowing
The VTE deals with appeals about council tax, the rateable value of business premises and other matters as set out under the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and 1992.
The first six months following my appointment as a VTE member involved completing seven modules of online training. Like any distance learning course, this involved the willpower required to study evenings and weekends after a full day's work. Surprisingly, the tests at the end of each module, with written feedback from the VTE's training team, helped me to stay focused and complete all the modules before the six-month deadline.
The highlight of the induction process was being able to shadow VTE members and chairs alongside the online training. This helped to bring the learning to life and I just could not wait to start.
One of the benefits of working flexibly with a dispersed law firm such as Setfords is that you can complete your casework around any other commitments. Consultants working in the same subject area are happy to pick up urgent cases and cover for me in my absence, which keeps my clients happy! There is no conflict of interest as the flexibility that I have been given promotes everything that Setfords stands for as an employer.
The key to juggling time commitments of the VTE role is having a diary, and a backup diary containing all my different deadlines. The VTE gives about two months' notice of hearings and you can inform it in advance of any dates you cannot make, so there is usually no need to decline work because of 'day job' commitments. Furthermore, the time commitment is only two days a month.
My first day
On the fateful day, the list of over 80 cases quickly dwindled to only a handful, due to out-of-court settlements and effective directions given to the parties in advance of the hearing. Despite all the training and shadowing, I felt a bit of nerves as I stepped out of my comfort zone and took my place on the bench.
Case one was typical VTE fare involving business rates. This was quickly dispensed with by granting directions which the parties had agreed outside court. Case two was more exciting: a full-blown business rates hearing where both the valuation officer and the appellant argued their case passionately.
The trickiest case of the day, which had taken hours of negotiations outside of the hearing room, involved seven racing horses – an application for stud relief.
The huge demand for top quality racing horses remains strong in the UK, with about 70 per cent of sales going to wealthy customers from the Middle East. An application for stud relief, when the hereditament the whole or part of consists of buildings which are used for breeding and rearing of horses, gives rise to a worthwhile discount to the stud farm operators, especially if they have multiple claims.
This case is a good example of the one thing that no amount of judicial training can prepare you for – the unexpected. From stud farming to an argument about how an appellant acquired £20,000 premium bonds without her knowledge, the evidence in front of you can sometimes be truly baffling – and that was just day one!
What I've learned
The advantage of being part of a decision-making panel is that you get to talk through each case with your panel member(s). You can look at the case from at least two different perspectives and ask the clerk to assist with the law. As a solicitor, questioning skills and critical analysis of the evidence will definitely assist you when you are sitting on the other side of the bench.
What surprised me the most is how much technology is already being embraced by the VTE. I had envisaged having to print out or carry tonnes of paper. However, I found that the days of paper being wasted are long gone. Instead, you can expect an iPad-sized device on which you can read the papers on the day. My perception of the bench as being outdated and out of touch has changed to a more modern one where hearings are paperless and take place in shared spaces such as hotel meeting rooms.
On the down side, speed reading and staring at a small screen for long hours can be challenging, so be prepared for this.
From the perspective of solicitors or indeed any advocate going before a tribunal, it would certainly pay dividends to get back to basics in terms of evidence. The common errors I have seen so far have involved professional appellants coming before the tribunal without the evidence they need to prove their case: for example, not providing photographic evidence, which is vital in certain business rates cases, or referring to case law on the day without bringing any copies for the tribunal or the other side (the panel expects three printed copies of the entire judgment). Advocates will do well to remember that the tribunal can only make a decision based on the evidence that is put before them on the day of the hearing.
Keeping an open mind
My advice to aspiring judges is to always keep an open mind. You will hear one argument and believe you are convinced, and then you will hear from the other side and be equally swayed. You should focus on the finding of facts and evidence provided to you on the day of the hearing.
Becoming a VTE member will provide you with a stimulating and varied role that will take you away from the humdrum of your legal casework and the office setting. If you are prepared to step outside of your comfort zone for a day or two a month, then nothing will beat a judicial appointment to do just that.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.