Richard Wright is a barrister in Leeds, specialising in criminal law; he applied and was appointed a Deputy District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) in 2006 at the early age of 29, pretty much as soon as he had become eligible.
Richard was attracted by a new challenge. “It would be a completely different experience and opportunity to being in practice,” he says. “It was about developing a new skill set, and sometimes it’s also welcome to have a break from the day job.” Plus there were three other deputy district judges in his chambers: “I saw my friends doing it and enjoying it.”
He believes his age actually helped when he had to fill in the self-assessment of qualities and abilities in his application form. “One of the benefits of applying young is that you are used to that type of application. It’s the kind of form you filled out for university, bar school and pupillage.”
At the same time, a shorter period in practice can make it harder to find the evidence-based examples through which applicants demonstrate the required competencies. The answer, he found, was to think laterally. “You need to go outside your legal experiences and find examples drawn from your everyday life,” he says.
Richard had also had the good sense before attending his interview and assessment day to spend several days visiting magistrates’ courts and observing judges in action – seeing how they dealt with people, how they sentenced, and how they managed their courts.
After hearing that he had been successful, he attended a three-day residential induction course organised by the Judicial Studies Board, where district judges lectured on topics such as magistrates’ court procedure, substantive law and sentencing guidelines. They looked at cases that are magistrates’ court-specific, such as drink driving, and the common defences.
There were also role plays as the would-be judges started to develop their ‘judgecraft’. For Richard, this is best learnt through exposure to good judges, and encompasses a range of different skills. “There is a significant burden of work in the magistrates’ court – there are very busy lists. So you have to be efficient and use your time well. But you cannot let the desire to be efficient get in the way of weighing the arguments, giving everyone an opportunity and listening to the whole story.”
His district judge mentor was “great” as well. “Everyone has to start somewhere and you need someone who remembers what it was like to step through the door for the first time and be the decision-maker.” He mainly sits in a remand court, and will also handle trials where there is a legal issue or another complication. But one of the toughest aspects of being a judge in the criminal courts has to be putting people in prison. “You have difficult decisions to make,” Richard reflects. “You can have a serious crime competing with a compelling human case, and it would be wrong if you didn’t agonise about that. But you have to have certainty and resolution. It can be hard to send someone to prison, but if the offence demands it, then that is what you have to do.”
Sitting as a judge has helped in the day job, he reckons. “You listen unimpressed to something an advocate is saying and realise, ‘I would have said that’.”
Another advantage of starting young, perhaps, is that he is not in a rush to move up the judicial ladder. Though a Recordership is clearly in his thoughts for the future, “at the moment I’m enjoying what I’m doing. The 20 days a year that I sit are one of the most enjoyable parts of my professional life”.