Human justice: practical learning as a tribunal judge

Judge Paul Shaerf found fresh inspiration as an adjudicator after 20 years in private practice. We asked him about learning from fellow judges and sharing his own tips as part of judge-led workshops in the Pre-Application Judicial Education (PAJE) programme.
Busy concourse at Victoria train station, London - blurred people in foreground

I was appointed a fee-paid immigration adjudicator (now known as a tribunal judge) in 1998 and am currently a designated immigration judge based in Taylor House, London.

When I started in the tribunal, someone told me I would never need to go on holiday again because the whole world would come to me – which has turned out to be not very far from the truth. The human interest is a never-ceasing pleasure.

My route into the immigration tribunal

After 20 years as a non-contentious civil solicitor in private practice, I felt a little jaded with a diet of property, wills, trusts and probate work.

I investigated fee-paid judicial appointments and I applied for my first role as an immigration judge because the job description attached little premium to litigation experience (of which I had none).

To my great surprise and delight – despite admitting at the interview that I knew nothing about immigration and asylum law – I was appointed.

After not many sittings, I decided that being an adjudicator was more interesting and enjoyable than being a partner in a firm of solicitors.

I completed the minimum number of sittings to be eligible for salaried appointment just as a salaried competition was launched.

In 2004, I successfully applied in the first competition for the newly created post of designated immigration judge.

My post included a management and mentoring role. This was important as immigration and asylum law became more complex – in part due to the increased number of appeals, and immigration developing a higher public and political profile – and more fee-paid judges were appointed.

Fairness and understanding

Being a judge is an immense responsibility.

Many of the decisions I make will affect not only the appellant in the case for the rest of their life but also their children and grandchildren. It is a great privilege to be entrusted with such momentous and far-reaching decisions.

To me, it is important to:

  • hear the appeal in a fair and just manner
  • reach a good decision
  • articulate the reasons in a well-written decision which gives no grounds for appeal

Judges need to know the academic or technical aspects of the law, but also see how their application of the law to a particular case will work out in real life.

“Hands-on experience” is an essential quality of good judge who – while maintaining independence and impartiality – should understand the humanity of all those (parties, witnesses and advocates) who appear before them.

Solicitors have the professional discipline of knowing that, when they give advice, they also need to advise:

  • how that advice is to be acted on in practice
  • what difficulties the client may face further down the line

Experienced solicitors understand their clients’ problems and the need to explain the law to them in a way which makes sense in real life.

Learning from fellow judges

In my view, judicial decisions benefit from judges being able to discuss troubling or difficult aspects of a case with colleagues from a range of backgrounds and with a variety of life experiences.

In the immigration jurisdiction, it was recognised long ago that a person from a minority background might have a better understanding of the trans-cultural issues faced by appellants.

Over many years I have had discussions with fellow immigration judges who are an extremely diverse group. Such discussions have been invaluable in developing my knowledge and understanding and so have helped me make better decisions.

Preparing candidates to think like judges

I have had training responsibilities both as a solicitor and a judge and it felt natural to apply to be a facilitator on the PAJE programme when it launched in 2019.

Ultimately PAJE is a programme delivered by judges for aspiring judges. It focuses on the nuts and bolts of applying and taking part in the competition process.

The programme offers me an opportunity hopefully to give candidates a glimpse of judicial life – and try and show that there is no mystique or mystery about being a judge.

To succeed in a judicial competition, candidates need to be determined, resilient, hard-working, and committed to applying the law justly and fairly as independent judges.

Judicial candidates also need to show they can think like a judge and not an advocate (whose function is too one-sided).

It is just as important to understand that you can do this regardless of background or the route you chose to become a lawyer, and if you are not successful in one competition, you must try in another.

Just as people have different backgrounds, so they have or plan to have different career trajectories and I think the PAJE experience is useful for anyone looking for their first judicial appointment, even those eying the High Court.

Paul’s tips for aspiring judges

If you are thinking about becoming a judicial candidate, you should make extensive use of the available resources, including:

  • opportunities to shadow judges
  • outreach events organised by the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) and the different professional organisations involved in PAJE
  • the Judicial Careers Portal

When it comes to the actual competition, read all the JAC’s information about the process thoroughly. This will yield valuable information about what qualities, experience and knowledge the JAC is hoping to find.

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