Becoming a judge

The Royal Courts of Justice

Once again, top judges are making the headlines over Article 50. You might then wonder: how do you get to be a judge? Here's a quick guide.

 'I didn't do it m'lud!' cries the defendant as he is dragged from the dock down into the cells. The judge bangs a gavel and shouts 'silence in court!' to quell the hubbub erupting from the packed public gallery...

 

Never mind that English judges don't use gavels and that courtroom public galleries are usually emptier than a meeting of the Sepp Blatter fan club – never mind all that: the judiciary is fascinating. Imagine the power! Few jobs make a wizened 101-year old look glamorous. But this isn't about glamour; it's about the robust application of the law, of course. 

 

Under the English common law system, judges are lawyers who already have quite a bit of work experience under their belt, for example in private practice. This contrasts with the system in many other countries, especially those with a Roman law system, where you can more or less hit the gavel after a swift graduate programme. Former Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Hooper (now at Matrix Chambers) set out the basic nature of the English system when we interviewed him in 2012: “The tradition in all common law countries is that judges are chosen from the ranks of legal practitioners.”

 

The Judicial Appointments Commission is working hard to encourage judicial applications from individuals from a wide range of backgrounds.

 

So to become a judge you must first have practised law – as a solicitor, barrister or legal executive – for a good few years. “If you said in a pupillage interview 'I hope to be a judge', I suspect most people would think you were getting a little ahead of yourself," says Angus Withington, a Crown Court recorder and member of Henderson Chambers. Becoming a judge is about playing the long game, but in the meantime you should be building up your practice as a lawyer, working on advocacy skills and perhaps developing a specialism. It can also help to volunteer, join professional bodies or publish articles. (Indeed, legal academics can become judges too.) Another piece of good news is that the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) is working hard to encourage judicial applications from individuals from a wide range of backgrounds. The minimum post-qualification experience required for certain judicial roles has recently been lowered and the Judicial Office was keen for us to hear about Richard Wright QC, a barrister who was made a deputy district judge in 2006 at the age of 28.

 

Be aware from the outset that gaining a judicial position is an extremely competitive business: the JAC received 5,591 applications in 2013/14 for just over 800 positions (and bear in mind that most of those applications will not have been speculative, but will rather have come from highly qualified candidates). There tend to be recruitment exercises in cycles of two or three years, so to give you an idea of the number of positions on offer in the judiciary, here's a table of the last three years' worth of recommended appointments:

 

 

Appointments recommended by the Judicial Appointments Commission

 

      2014/15   2013/14   2012/13   2011/12
                   
  Deputy district judges (Magistrates' Court)   0   0   28   0
                   
  District judges (Magistrates' Court)   0   1   15   30
                   
  Deputy district judges (civil)   87   0   98   0
                   
  District judges (civil)   0   54   0   56
                   
  Recorders   0   0   0   108
                   
  Circuit judges   53   54   0   25
                   
  Senior/specialist circuit judges   6   6   9   9
                   
  High court judges   10   10   14   5
                   
 

Figures taken from JAC annual reports or provided directly by the JAC. Chart does not include tribunal judges.

 

Got that? Now it's time for a peep at the secretive world of judges...

 

Magistrates

 

Magistrates or Justices of the Peace (JPs) are not qualified lawyers, but lay volunteers who give up their time to sit in judgment over their peers. There are over 20,000 magistrates in England and Wales, and individuals can be appointed from the age of 18 upwards, retiring at 70. Magistrates must commit to sitting for a minimum of 13 days (or 26 half-days) each year.

 

The role requires no formal legal training and magistrates are supported by a qualified legal advisor in court. JPs are usually people with some life experience, though the common preconception that all magistrates are 60-plus 'ladies who lunch' is wrong – we have heard of individuals becoming magistrates in their early thirties. Becoming a JP is not a career path: people volunteer to be magistrates in the same way they might become school governors or volunteer for a community charity.

 

Qualified lawyers can become magistrates, though individuals in some professions – like the police – cannot.

 

Qualified lawyers can become magistrates, though individuals in some professions – like the police – cannot. Magistrates are recruited by local advisory committees and vacancies are advertised online – check back regularly as vacancy lists are frequently updated and application windows are brief. In theory becoming a magistrate doesn't lead to any further judicial career – judicial experience is not a prerequisite for gaining a fee-paid judicial role (see below), but Magistrates' Court experience is certainly one way of gaining familiarity with court process.

 

Magistrates' Courts deal with criminal matters such as anti-social behaviour, vandalism, drugs offences, burglary, and motoring charges. More serious cases – robbery, murder, rape – do come before magistrates but are quickly passed up to the Crown Court. More experienced magistrates also deal with cases in the youth court (involving defendants aged ten to 18) or with children's cases in the family court. In addition, magistrates can sit with a legally qualified circuit judge in the Crown Court during appeals.

 

More information about magistrates can be found on the judiciary website and gov.uk has more on how you become a magistrate. Also check out the website of the Magistrates Association, an independent body which represents the voice of magistrates.

 

Judicial shadowing

 

If you're a qualified lawyer and seriously contemplating applying to be a judge, you can sign up for the Judicial Work Shadowing Scheme. This scheme is especially helpful if you are thinking of applying for a junior judicial position. Shadowing is open to barristers, solicitors, legal executives, patent attorneys, and trade mark attorneys who have at least seven years of post-qualification experience. (We have heard anecdotally that exceptions to this minimum requirement are sometimes made.)

 

Marshalling for a judge is a good experience to get if you are an aspiring barrister or solicitor.

 

There's more information about the Judicial Work Shadowing Scheme on the Judiciary website. This scheme is not open to students but there are other schemes which are, and marshalling for a judge is a good experience to get if you are an aspiring barrister or solicitor. Contact courts directly to organise this or ask your Inn.

 

District judges 

There are two types of district judge (DJ): those who sit in the County Court and deal with civil matters, and those who sit in the Magistrates' Court – known as district judge (Magistrates' Court) – who deal with criminal matters. Unlike magistrates, DJs are legally qualified, and usually sit alone in court (magistrates sit in threes). Barristers, solicitors and legal executives can all apply; for both roles you need at least five years' post-qualification experience.

 

The usual route to becoming a DJ is to be a deputy district judge first – this is a fee-paying part-time role (15 to 50 days a year); the role of district judge is full-time and salaried. (It's worth remembering that once you've become a salaried judge at any level you can't go back to private practice, which you can do if you've only had a fee-paid role.) District judges will usually have sat as a deputy district judge for at least two years (or 30 days’ sittings). There are currently over 400 district judges in England and Wales.

 

[I'm] responsible for a vast range of different criminal cases – from applications from the gas board to enter a property and fit a meter to first appearances by defendants charged with murder.”

 

One district judge (MC) we spoke to had worked in an advocacy-heavy role as a criminal solicitor for nearly two decades before becoming a deputy DJ. “I had also been actively involved in community legal projects outside work,” they told us. “I was a youth worker and sat on the management committee of a youth club. I was also part of a project on restorative justice.” This lengthy pre-judicial career contrasts with that of Richard Wright QC, a Leeds-based criminal barrister who was appointed as a deputy district judge at age 28 when he was just eight years' call: “Once I started my pupillage and thereafter as a tenant I looked to what was, and remains to a large extent, the typical career path for a criminal barrister – Bar, part-time judge, silk and perhaps one day a full-time job [as a judge].” Given the judiciary's recent efforts to encourage younger applicants, Wright's speedy journey to the bench could become more common in future.

 

From being a district judge it's possible to become a recorder and hence a circuit judge. But being a DJ is a good career end-point in itself. Why? “I have a greater variety of work than I would in another judicial role,” our senior DJ source says. Richard Wright chimes in:[I'm] responsible for a vast range of different criminal cases – from applications from the gas board to enter a property and fit a meter to first appearances by defendants charged with murder.”

 

Like magistrates, DJs (MC) can also sit in the specialised family and youth courts. Cases here often throw into relief the huge social and community responsibility which judges have. “I enjoy building a relationship with the young people who appear before me,” our senior DJ source mused. “Although when I'm building a relationship with them that is often, unfortunately, because they are repeat offenders.”

 

Recorders

 

A recorder is essentially a part-time circuit judge, and like being a deputy district or tribunal judge the role is fee-paid (ie paid by the day rather than salaried). Recorders are appointed either to the Crown Court or the County Court, the former doing criminal work, the latter civil and family. Recorders must be able to sit for at least three weeks (15 days) a year and preferably more than six weeks (30 days). To apply to be a recorder you must have been qualified as a solicitor or barrister for at least seven years, although "in practice I think very few people successfully apply [to be a recorder] who are just seven years' call,” says Angus Withington, who was 16 years' call when he became a recorder in 2012. Over 100 recorders were recruited that year from over 1,000 applicants. The JAC began a new recruitment round for recorders in 2015 – once again there were around 100 positions vacant.

 

Traditionally, becoming a recorder was the first step on the judicial ladder for barristers, while solicitors tended to become district judges.

 

Traditionally, becoming a recorder was the first step on the judicial ladder for barristers, while solicitors tended to become district judges. The Judicial Appointment Commission has been working fervently in recent years to break down this divide – both solicitors and barristers can apply for the role, and the post-qualification experience required was lowered from ten years to seven in 2008. As with all judicial appointments, competition for a position as a recorder is fierce. As such we were surprised to hear from Angus Withington that he had not had any specific judicial experience before applying (although he had been a legal assessor for the General Osteopathic Council). “I hadn't actually done any criminal work in my own practice before I became a recorder – my practice is civil,” says Withington. “The appointments selection process is very competitive and I think that it would be a positive advantage to have experience in either criminal or family work, which are the main jurisdictions for newly appointed recorders.”

 

Officially recorders have the same jurisdiction as circuit judges, but they tend to start off with less complicated cases – ones not involving murder, manslaughter or sexual offences. That doesn't mean the workload is easy fare. “I have sat on a wide variety of cases ranging from serious assaults, robbery, burglary and the possession and supply of drugs to more specialist offences such as breach of copyright,says Angus Withington.

 

Circuit judges

 

Circuit judges rank above district judges, but below high court judges. They sit in the Crown Court and County Courts, and specialised jurisdictions such as the Technology and Construction Court. To be appointed as a circuit judge you must have at least seven years' post-qualification experience, and will normally have served as a recorder (criminal side) or district judge (civil side) first. There are currently over 600 circuit judges in England and Wales.

 

Keith Raynor was appointed a circuit judge in April 2015. “My chief responsibility [as a circuit judge],” he tells us, “is making sure that cases are ready for trial, trying to make the system run efficiently and effectively, presiding over criminal law trials and sentencing defendants who plead guilty or who are convicted by the jury after a trial.” In other words, when you think of the popular image of a judge – decked out in purple, big poofy wig, facing off hardened criminals – you're thinking of a circuit judge.

 

When you think of the popular image of a judge – decked out in purple, big poofy wig, facing off hardened criminals – you're thinking of a circuit judge.

 

It was only when I was in my 40s that I began to think that I really wanted to become a judge,” says Keith Raynor. Nevertheless his career is remarkable and the reasons he's suitable for a position as a full-time judge are clear: having been appointed a recorder in 2005, he worked as a senior prosecutor for the UN Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia and subsequently investigated British service personnel suspected of war crimes in Iraq. Prior to that he was a criminal barrister, a solicitor in Australia and – somewhat surprising – began his career training at City firm Lovell, White & King (now Hogan Lovells).

 

Tribunal judges

 

Tribunals are specialist bodies which make judicial decisions in relation to a certain area of law such as employment, immigration, tax or benefits. In relation to the last three tribunals deal with appeals against the government. There are a large number of fee-paid tribunal judges who sit on a part-time basis (131 were appointed in 2013/14 and nearly 200 the year before), and around 500 salaried tribunal judges.

 

We doubt you could gain any role within the judiciary without having spent some time talking to individuals already on the bench.

 

I enjoy the inquisitorial nature of the tribunal,” says Olufemi Oluleye, a fee-paid judge in the Social Entitlement Tribunal. “A judge in this role needs the skills of good communication and listening.” Oluleye stresses the importance that networking had in helping her gain her current position: “I work-shadowed a judge, attended a Law Society workshop and went to a 'Meet the judges' event.” She advises those interested in tribunal work: “Give yourself time to explore the different jurisdictions you might want to consider. Do work shadowing and where possible visit courts and tribunals before you narrow your possibilities. Talk to those doing the job and ask questions.” Certainly, we doubt you could gain any role within the judiciary without having spent some time talking to individuals already on the bench. Oluleye herself tells us she spent three years mapping out and planning her application to become a part-time judge.

 

It's worth noting that judges can move from a position in a tribunal to one in a court and vice versa, and that it's possible to hold a fee-paid post in both a tribunal and a court simultaneously.

 

High court judges

 

Flowing red gowns, big floppy wigs, the paparazzi camped outside London's Royal Courts of Justice – this is the world of the high court judge. There are 110 high court judges split between the Queen’s Bench Division, Family Division and Chancery Division. There are other specialised courts too. You can find more information on how the courts are structured in our overviews of the Civil and Criminal Courts, and our practice area features on the Chancery Bar and Commercial Bar.

 

The High Court hears both criminal and civil cases on appeal as well as dealing with important and high-value cases at first instance. High court masters deal with the procedural parts of cases on behalf of high court judges; there are 22 of them.

 

To become a high court judge you do not technically need to have been appointed a QC or been a fee-paid deputy high court judge first, though this is the background of many current high court judges. However, you must either have sat as a circuit judge for at least two years or have a least seven years' post-qualification experience (in practice most successful applicants have far more). To be authorised to sit as a deputy high court judge candidates previously had to be a sitting circuit judge, recorder or tribunal judge. However, this requirement has been dropped for the recruitment round being run by the JAC in 2015. Most high court judges are barristers – to the best of our knowledge only four solicitors have ever been appointed to the High Court.

 

One step above the High Court you'll find the Court of Appeal, where 38 judges sit to hear appeals from the Crown Court on criminal matters and from the County and High Courts on civil matters. “Appellate judges read cases well in advance,” Sir Anthony Hooper told us in 2012 (when he was an Appeals judge). “I do nine or ten cases a day* and each must be given the attention it deserves. [Being a judge] is quite often a very stressful occupation. Sentencing people to significant terms of imprisonment is not an easy task, albeit a necessary one.”

 

The highest court in the land is the UK Supreme Court formed in 2009 to replace the Law Lords. Its 12 justices sit as the final court of appeal for all cases in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court's website has lots of information on the functioning of the court, organising visits, and recent judgments.

 

* We've been told it's unusual for an Appeals judge to do as many cases as this on one day. It's more usual for them to do one big cases. Look at the daily lists to get a better idea of this.

 

So you fancy yourself as a judge?

 

Get involved, be patient, shadow a judge, network, watch, listen, learn and then... apply. Those are roughly the steps you'll need to follow, providing you have five or so years to spare. It's a long process and not a linear one. All the judicial sources we spoke to had what seemed an unusual route to the judiciary. In other words: there is no normal route into the highest tier of the legal profession. From qualification it could be as few as five years or as many as 20 before you successfully gain appointment to a judicial role.

 

Get involved, be patience, shadow a judge, network, watch, listen, learn and then... apply.

 

We'll leave the last word to Sir Anthony Hooper: “There are now so many ranks of judges, from district judges through to the Supreme Court, that there are many opportunities to become a judge.” That said, “the business of judging is not easy. In most cases good arguments will be put forward by the opposing parties. One party or another will be disappointed by the decision you make. The parties are entitled to and must be given a fair hearing and a reasoned decision, which – even if not acceptable to one party – produces the best possible result.”

 

The Judiciary and Judicial Appointments Commission websites have more information on judicial careers – these should be your next port of call to find out more. Much of the information above must be credited to these websites, and we'd also like to thank both organisations for their help in preparing this feature.

 

This feature was first published in our June 2015 newsletter.