Harriet Quiney is a Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber. She is a solicitor and partner in global legal business DWF Law LLP, specialising in defending professional liability claims against financial professionals including accountants, actuaries and IFAs.
I started thinking about a judicial role about three years ago. After 30 years in professional liability, I wanted a new challenge, but did not want to make a career change. I attended a course organised by the Law Society and signed up to the JAC newsletter ‘Judging Your Future’. I wasn’t sure what type of judicial role I was interested in, so applied for a variety of roles as they came up. Part way through my journey, I attended the Pre-Application Judicial Education (PAJE) Programme, which is primarily a course in judgecraft and supports lawyers from underrepresented groups to feel more equipped to apply.
I had not sat an exam since law school, so faced the qualifying test with some trepidation. In my non-judicial role, I spend a lot of time analysing insurance contracts, which meant I found the textual analysis section relatively straightforward. I initially knew nothing about judgecraft, but found the PAJE training very helpful and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is eligible. I initially struggled with the scenario test as I am dyslexic and dyspraxic. This has an impact on the time it takes to turn my thoughts into writing, particularly if I am unfamiliar with the subject matter or situation and haven’t developed a bank of useful phrases. After a couple of failed attempts, I decided to out myself as neurodiverse and ask for additional time (which is now standard for people with these conditions in academic examinations). The extra time I was given meant that I could compete with other candidates on a level playing field.
The first time I attended an interview, I was unprepared for the roleplay. This is not something I had much experience of, but as I floundered my way through, I gained a sense of the mistakes I was making. Afterwards, I went for a coffee with a couple of the other candidates to talk it over. This helped me figure out where I had gone wrong and how I would do it differently next time. In particular, I realised that it was important to have the confidence to stop and think, rather than rush to say something to fill a vacuum.
After three years of trying, I was finally appointed. The Social Entitlement Chamber wasn’t my first choice of tribunal, but it has proved to be a very good fit. One my children receives one of the benefits that falls within our remit, so I have first-hand experience of completing the application forms and understand the difficulties some claimants have to overcome when describing the impact of their diverse abilities on day to day living and mobility, as it can be hard to focus on the negatives rather than the positives.
The tribunal system is inquisitorial, rather than adversarial, and our objective includes avoiding formality and ensuring that the parties are able to participate fully in the proceedings. This can be a challenge as the overwhelming majority of Social Entitlement Chamber claimants are vulnerable people, many of whom have mental health conditions; but as part of a two or three person panel, I can rely on the expertise of a Doctor and, usually, a Disability Qualified Member. Between us, we are usually about to work out how to put the claimant at ease, enabling him or her to participate appropriately.
SEC cases require significant pre-reading. Fortunately, I am quite scientifically minded and have always liked articles about medical matters and medical documentaries, so I am enjoying reading claimants’ medical records and judicial updates on issues like hearing loss, addiction and modern pain management.
As a dyslexic/dyspraxic, I don’t find the writing side of the role too difficult. Our decision notices are mostly pre-populated, so the only time I need to write anything substantial is when asked to prepare a statement of reasons for a decision. These are more akin to a standard judgment. Having written five or six now (as compared to having issued about 100 directions and decision notices), and with great support from my family judge (this is a quasi line management role), I am getting used to the writing style and very happy that our version of word comes with a full medical dictionary!
At the moment I am sitting 30 days a year, no more than one day a week. The ability to tender random days rather conform to a strict pattern means that I can fit my sitting days around other work commitments and avoid school holidays. The experience of large numbers of telephone hearings (I first sat during lockdown) has filtered back into my professional liability practice as I find I am now more focused and more of an active listener, so growing into my judicial role has helped develop my professional liability practice too.