Lesley Smith, Upper Tribunal Judge, Immigration and Asylum Chamber

Lesley Smith is a full time Judge of the Upper Tribunal, Immigration and Asylum Chamber. She was previously a fee-paid Lawyer Chairman of the Residential Property Tribunal, and a senior Government Lawyer with the Treasury Solicitor’s Department. Lesley is a former ILEX Fellow.

“I come from what is an unusual background for the salaried judiciary but there are more and more people coming from different backgrounds. I am often approached by others in the Government Legal Service to discuss or give talks about being a judge, which shows the increased interest in this route whether on a part-time or full-time basis.

“I did not do a law degree at university – I studied French – and was not sure what I wanted to do afterwards. I started off in banking and hated it.  My whole family were civil servants and I ended up going down that route. I put the Treasury Solicitors Department (TSol) as an option on my application form because I had learnt some law as part of my banking exams and enjoyed it. It was the time of the Crown Proceedings Act, which allowed people to sue for personal injury, and TSol were looking for people. I knew very little about the law, courts, or claims and arrived to find I had 60 cases to handle. That was 34 years ago.

“The main reasons why I started to train as a legal executive, rather than a solicitor, were that I was not sure where I wanted my career to go at that stage and I was also married and had a mortgage, so going back to college full-time did not really appeal.

“I did it the long way – everything by correspondence and part time – and it took me about eight years. You could not join the Government Legal Service (GLS) as a legal executive at that time (the position has changed since). I also found out that back then, if legal executives decided to go on to become a solicitor, they did not need to do a training contract. So I made sure I did the right legal executive exams to get the exemptions for the Legal Practice Course (LPC), and then studied for the LPC at Nottingham part-time over two years.

“I eventually became a Deputy Director in TSol – a management position – and as much as I enjoyed it, it was not what I became a lawyer to do. My friends said I was a frustrated barrister and being a litigator, I always loved being in Court. So I began to look for other options.

“I had focussed on immigration law for 10 years, so becoming an immigration judge was the obvious thought – but I couldn’t because of the conflict of interest with my day job. I had also done some housing law for TSol in the past, and therefore my route into the judiciary was through becoming a Fee-Paid Lawyer Chairman of the Residential Property Tribunal (now the First-tier Tribunal, Property Chamber).

“There was a good mentoring scheme in the tribunal where you sit a few times as a ‘winger’ on the tribunal panel, alongside another judge. I worked for the tribunal one to two days per month.

“I started my current role in 2015. It was a steep learning curve, particularly not having sat in the First-tier of my current Tribunal; although the area of law is familiar to me, the processes in the First-tier Chamber were not. I enjoyed the challenge and was surprised how easily I fitted in. Some people say that judicial roles are lonely. I have not found that to be the case at all. All the other judges and tribunal staff are very friendly and helpful. The work is mentally demanding but that is what I wanted. All in all, I am really pleased that I went down this route and I am thoroughly enjoying my (now not so new) career.

“Having been a public lawyer in Government, there are many skills which I consider to have been invaluable in my judicial career. First, working in public law in Government gives one a very clear understanding of and solid background in the principles which apply equally to judicial roles. For example, a duty to act fairly, to consider all relevant evidence and to make a decision which is rational. Second, having been a litigator, I had a long background in running cases. Whilst the way in which a case is put forward is of course for the parties, those skills translate to case management in a judicial role. Third, similarly as a litigator, I had plenty of experience of drafting documents (witness statements and the like). That experience has helped me in my drafting of decisions.  Finally, I had many years of management experience as a lawyer and senior civil servant in Government. That experience has been very helpful in the handling of hearings before me. There is surprisingly very little difference between managing staff and managing those who appear before you as a Judge!

“Law was not a subject on offer at the school I attended. I had no idea I would be interested in it until after I left university and it was largely a matter of accident (or perhaps fate) that I ended up in what was essentially a legal role when I joined the civil service. Probably the greater influence thereafter in terms of my personal background was friendships with people who were accomplished lawyers, many of whom have ended up as judges. It was through them that I gained in confidence in my legal abilities and came to realise that judges are really just ordinary people. Those of my friends who became judges encouraged my judicial ambitions and were always willing to act as referees.”

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