Jonathan Holbrook is a Deputy Regional Judge of the First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber), Northern Region. Jonathan also works in a fee-paid capacity as an Employment Judge and Judge of the First-tier Tribunal in the General Regulatory Chamber.
I began my career as a solicitor with a large London law firm. However, I subsequently joined the Government Legal Service and was posted to various Whitehall departments, as well as to the Law Commission. The work was fascinating and offered an unparalleled opportunity to be involved in the development, drafting and passage of new legislation. Later, I worked for the Disability Rights Commission in Manchester, focusing on legal policy issues – such as access to justice for disabled people.
My first judicial appointment was to the Mental Health Review Tribunal (as it then was) in 2004. I was subsequently appointed to the Residential Property Tribunal Service in 2006, to the Charity Tribunal in 2008, and as an Employment Judge in 2010. These were all fee-paid appointments – I became a salaried judge in 2013 when I was appointed Deputy Regional Judge of the FTT (Property Chamber).
I now spend most of my time dealing with cases concerning residential property, ranging from service charge disputes between landlords and tenants – about the costs of replacing dangerous cladding, for example – to appeals against an array of housing enforcement action taken by local authorities. But I still sit as an Employment Judge too and, from time to time, I also hear charity and pensions cases in the FTT’s General Regulatory Chamber. The chance to be involved in such a diverse range of cases is a major perk of having a portfolio of appointments.
The work I had done at the Disability Rights Commission around access to justice had brought me into contact with the world of courts and tribunals and so applying for judicial appointment seemed an obvious next step. I didn’t really expect to be successful when I first applied, not least because I had never been a litigator, but the challenge appealed to me. I liked the idea of having the opportunity – and the responsibility – of interpreting and applying the law as a judge. But I also thought it would be satisfying to do a job which focuses on enabling people to put forward their best case about matters which are hugely important to them, and about then bringing closure to their disputes. I was right about that. So, whilst the legal challenge was attractive to me, the public service aspect was important too. That might sound cheesy, but it is true.
I have a disability – cerebral palsy – which affects my speech, co-ordination and mobility significantly. Did the fact of my disability cause me to hesitate before applying for judicial appointment? Absolutely. Parties coming into a hearing probably aren’t expecting the judge to have a very visible disability. But, in reality, there is no reason why a disabled person shouldn’t have all the skills required to be a judge. In my own case, my speech can be hard to understand, particularly for people who have just met me, so I always have to be aware of this when conducting hearings. If necessary, I will adjust the way I do things to ensure that my disability is not causing a barrier. In truth though, I have been very pleasantly surprised at how rarely parties seem to be fazed by it.
My career before becoming a judge was diverse both in terms of the areas of law I dealt with and in terms of the legal roles I held. I saw this variety as a good thing and it gave me confidence to take on new challenges when I was appointed as a judge and, indeed, to then take on additional tribunal jurisdictions as my judicial experience grew. My involvement in drafting legislation prior to being appointed has undoubtedly shaped the way I approach legal questions, but my experience as a legal adviser in both the private and public sectors also helped me develop the people skills which are just as important for a judge to have.
My advice for those considering applying for a judicial appointment; be clear in your own mind about why you want to become a judge. It’s a hugely rewarding thing to do, but the job doesn’t suit everyone. If you are clear that you are ready to apply, however, then do so, and do not be put off by any self-doubts about whether you are (or whether you look like) ‘the right type’. Increasing the diversity of the judiciary is hugely important and the JAC’s mission is to select new judges on merit, not appearance. And don’t be put off if you do not succeed at your first attempt: the selection process is both challenging and competitive and many of today’s successful judges had to have more than one go at it!.