Q&A with District Tribunal Judges Marianne Bennett and Rhiannon Price

District Tribunal Judges Bennett and Price are based in Cardiff, Wales. They led two PAJE courses since the programme was launched in 2019; one of them was interrupted by the lockdown and was eventually delivered remotely. In this Q&A they tell us about their judicial careers, why they became PAJE facilitators, why more solicitors should consider applying for the PAJE judge-led workshops and provide top tips for those considering a judicial application.

Marianne Bennett
Marianne Bennett

Tell us about yourself and your judicial career so far

Marianne was a barrister called in 2003 practising from Chambers in Cardiff in family and crime. She was appointed as a fee-paid judge of the First-tier Tribunal, assigned to the Social Entitlement Chamber (Social Security and Child Support) in 2011 and as a salaried judge in the same chamber in 2014. She was also appointed as a fee-paid legal member of the Mental Health Review Tribunal (Wales) in 2014.

Rhiannon PriceRhiannon was appointed as a fee-paid judge of the First-Tier Tribunal, assigned to the Social Entitlement Chamber in 2013, and as a salaried judge of the First-tier Tribunal assigned to the Social Entitlement Chamber in 2018. She was also assigned as fee-paid judge of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber in 2015.

She had been admitted as a solicitor in 1999, and completed her training contract in a high street practice undertaking legal aid work in crime and family. In 2000, Rhiannon left high street practice to take up a role with Shelter Cymru to practise housing law.

Why did you want to become a judge?

Rhiannon

After completing my law degree, I decided to take a year out. I took up employment with a new project that was funded by Barnardos, primarily advising young people, leaving care, on their rights with a view to increasing their opportunities. This employment, which included advocacy and representation, motivated me to pursue a legal career and I then completed the Legal Practice Course.

My family had no legal connections, and finding a training contract proved difficult. I firstly took up a role as a housing rights adviser with Shelter Cymru, before accepting a position as a paralegal with a high street practice. I was then offered a training contract with the same firm.

In interviews I’ve had over the years, I’ve been asked the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” My response was “in judicial office in some form”. I said this as I was experienced in making decisions independently and communicating on different levels – those were the reasons I gave. Privately, I viewed this ambition as a pipe dream, thinking my background does not fit with being a judge.

Then my senior manager in Shelter Cymru was successful in obtaining a fee-paid judicial appointment. He actively encouraged me to apply on the next round. I did, on the basis that the practice would help future applications. My appointment following this first application was a huge but welcome surprise.

Marianne

I knew very strongly that I wanted to be a lawyer from when I was around 14. I was good at analysis and a relentless arguer so it seemed like a good fit.

I’d gone to my local comprehensive and was the first person in my family to go to university. I was well supported, but had no legal connections. Despite lots of work placements during my degree, I probably had little concept of what the job would be like and consider myself lucky that it suited me well enough.

It had never really occurred to me that I could be a judge; I didn’t think that people like me could be judges. My thinking probably changed in around 2007 when my chambers roommate became a fee-paid tribunal judge in social security and child support. Whilst he is undoubtedly a capable and talented lawyer, he was also someone I knew very well so did not have the mystique other judges held.

I tentatively suggested I thought I might apply in the 2011 JAC round as a practice for some distant potential future application and had strong encouragement and support with my application.

I was delighted to be appointed on my first attempt and enjoyed tribunal work from the outset. When I attended a Women in the Judiciary diversity event in Cardiff in 2013 I remember Mrs Justice Nicola Davies (now a Lady Justice) speaking about the freedom of being a judge in that you had no concern about the outcome of the case, a huge relief after years of representing one side or the other, that really struck true for me.

I applied for and was appointed to the salaried role within my own jurisdiction and a fee paid role within the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales and have been fortunate to be able to combine the two.

What have been the highlights of your judicial career so far?

Rhiannon

It is difficult to identify specific highlights; the role can be challenging but also rewarding. I feel privileged that I have been tasked with resolving issues that impact so fundamentally on peoples’ day to day lives. It’s reassuring that people are able to have their disputes resolved independently.

I am always delighted when the Upper Tribunal approves my decisions and reasons, they are good days!

As a salaried tribunal judge, I am conscious that we have additional responsibilities that make the role varied and enjoyable. We are responsible for judicial leadership, we are encouraged to participate in the delivery of training and also contribute to regular judicial articles.

Marianne

The jurisdictions in which I operate are far from glamorous; day in day out, I deal with people at what can be one of the most stressful times of their lives. There is satisfaction in ensuring that vulnerable people have access to a fair and open process that leads to a just result.

Some people worry that being a judge is a lonely life, without the camaraderie of a firm, chambers or the robing room. That certainly hasn’t been my experience. In both of my jurisdictions I sit, at least some of the time, with specialist lay members and I have found that working with people who are not lawyers has really broadened my approach.

The social entitlement chamber is particularly sociable and working in the regional headquarters where up to five panels run at a time means there is always someone to talk to over lunch.

I also really value the good working relationships we have with the administration. I mentor the three tribunal caseworkers (who make judicial decisions under delegated powers) and take pleasure in helping them develop.

Why did you want to become PAJE leaders and what has your experience of delivering the judge-led workshops been like?

Rhiannon

Prior to my judicial appointment, my career in Shelter Cymru opened up opportunities to work with many talented lawyers, who were very reluctant to even consider making an application for a judicial appointment, simply on the basis that they did not think their backgrounds/experience would be sufficient.

The reality is that the applications are assessed having regard to different competencies. PAJE is an opportunity for all lawyers to learn that their experience may allow them to evidence the individual competencies and instil confidence that they may be suited to a judicial career.

PAJE allows the delegates to learn from the judges leading the sessions, but also from fellow delegates who may have very different experiences.

Marianne

I applied for the PAJE scheme (and encouraged Rhiannon to do the same) in the hope of demonstrating that people from a variety of ordinary backgrounds could and should become judges and the old stereotypes are outdated.

That is not to say that anyone can become a judge; this is a demanding role that requires the very best candidates. In order to maintain excellence, those candidates must be drawn from the widest possible pool. Litigants will also want to know that somewhere in the judiciary there are judges like them.

We have enjoyed the PAJE workshops and have learned from the delegates as well as them learning from us.

Who should review the PAJE online resources and apply for a place in the judge-led workshops?

Rhiannon

Anyone who has thought “could I be a judge?” should apply. The application for PAJE appears onerous, but it’s important that applicants are aware from the outset that PAJE does require a degree of commitment and engagement from the delegates to allow them to benefit from the process. It’s also good practice for future application forms!

Marianne

Anyone who is interested in a judicial career should apply. This is not a coaching scheme, but one that enables delegates to think about the law from a judge’s position and explore that perspective in a safe and supportive environment.

You may think the application process is reasonably demanding but that is commensurate with the time needed for the programme itself and a useful part of the process.

In one of our sessions, a delegate said that the scheme had put them off and they didn’t think a judicial career was for them. Initially I was rather affronted by this, but on reflection, I think it still served a purpose. They were enabled to make a more informed decision about their future. This is not a role for everyone and not everyone will love it as much as I do.

View the PAJE online resources

What are your top tips for those considering a judicial career or about to apply for a judicial role?

Rhiannon and Marianne

  • Do not restrict yourself to the jurisdiction in which you are based. The Judicial College offers excellent training at induction and routinely thereafter. It might be possible to branch out but you will need to be realistic about your capacity and desire to keep up to date in something new.
  • Take the opportunity to observe tribunal and court hearings, if you are not a regular advocate in your current profession.
  • Think about what would suit you and your life – inquisitorial or adversarial, short cases or long cases, preparation on the day or in advance.
  • Research the role you’re applying for. Try to observe and talk to people already in post.
  • Start thinking about your application form long before the two-week window to complete it. It can be useful to keep a running record of challenging situations in which you have done well in order to evidence the required competencies.
  • Talk to a trusted friend, relative or colleague who has some understanding of your work and the application process. If you’re inclined to undersell yourself, their input can be valuable.
  • Don’t restrict yourself to work-based examples – your life outside of work is equally relevant and can generate suitable evidence.
  • Read the JAC guidance on how to apply. The word limits are tight, so make every word count.
  • Choose your independent assessors wisely. They do not need to be the person with the most impressive job title; they need to be someone who knows your work well and can give evidence based examples of your skills. 

How has coronavirus (COVID-19) affected your professional life so far?

Marianne

COVID-19 has been a challenge for everyone, one way or another. In the Social Entitlement Chamber, new practice statements and guidance from the Acting Chamber President have allowed for greater flexibility in how we work, without much precedent on how and when these powers should be exercised.

I hope we will keep some initiatives even when normal life resumes, for example, the ability of the tribunal to make a provisional decision that can be accepted or rejected by the parties before a hearing is arranged.

We have gone from doing a telephone hearing every week or so, to nothing but telephone hearings.

The key difference is being remote from our colleagues. Working remotely has enabled me to work with colleagues from outside of my local area. After the initial challenge of building a rapport with a stranger, I have enjoyed the variety and breadth of experience.

In the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, we have lost the ability to see patients face to face and for the medical member of the tribunal to conduct a preliminary examination. Whilst this is more difficult, my experience has been that everyone has pulled together to continue to offer the best experience in the circumstances.

Rhiannon

COVID-19 has presented challenges. One positive however, is how quickly some jurisdictions have adapted to allow remote hearings to take place. Before the pandemic, changes within HMCTS seemed to take a lifetime, however within a matter of weeks all hearings in the SSCS chamber were being conducted remotely, and visual platforms to allow tribunal panels to deliberate appeals have become more commonly used.

I have been impressed by how access to justice has been maintained, and I hope that some of these new ways of working will be here to stay.

Find out more about the PAJE

The Pre-Application Judicial Education (PAJE) programme, launched in April 2019, supports lawyers from underrepresented groups to feel more equipped, confident and prepared when considering applying for a judicial role.

The programme is a joint initiative of the Judiciary, Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), the Law Society, the Bar Council and CILEx.

It consists of both online resources and a series of four judge-led training seminars offered to successful applicants, to help them better understand the judicial role and prepare for judicial applications.