Hazel Oliver is a Fee-paid Employment Judge, sitting in the London East Employment Tribunal, appointed in 2009. She is also a solicitor at Lewis Silkin LLP and was a partner in the employment department before taking up the fee-paid appointment.
A Fee-paid Employment Judge is a part-time judge who hears claims about matters to do with employment, including claims for unfair dismissal, unpaid wages, redundancy payments and discrimination.
“I did not see myself as a senior partner running a law firm, so I was looking for a different challenge and new way to develop my career. I also wanted to spend more time actually in tribunal, which was happening less and less as I became a more senior solicitor.
“So I applied to the JAC to be a fee-paid Employment Judge, and I can definitely say it was the hardest selection process I had ever been through. I didn’t really expect to get through the first time I applied, so was a bit surprised when I did! I now sit on average four to five days a month. I also work part-time as a solicitor in a support/training role, which enables me to do more than the minimum number of sitting days. Although my firm was very supportive of my application, and I could have taken up the fee-paid appointment and remained as a partner, I made the personal choice to change role so that I could spend more time in the tribunal.
“Many of the cases you deal with as a fee-paid judge in the tribunal are not as legally complicated as those you would handle as a partner. However, the issues are incredibly important to the people involved and you feel like you are doing something useful. It is also quite an intellectual challenge, as there is little if any time to prepare in advance – I generally do not know what I am dealing with until I arrive at the tribunal in the morning. I also find that it makes quite a difference having to decide on the “right” answer in a case rather than, as a solicitor, simply advising on legal risks.
“The centre I sit at has a high caseload, and I generally hear between one and three cases a day, depending on the type of claim involved. There are around 15 fee-paid employment judges that regularly sit at London East, and there are generally two or three of us in on any one day. There is a good mix of people from different backgrounds – solicitors, barristers, in-house lawyers and academics.
“In terms of the selection process itself, I initially found the written test was not quite what I was expecting. It was a lot to do in a short time, was mainly multiple choice questions, and there was a lot of numerical calculation work involved. However, now I am doing the job, I can see why these skills were being tested – for example, you have to be able to look up technical points very quickly, and work out dates and amounts of awards on the spot. I think to succeed in the written test you do need to get very familiar with the materials the JAC provide in advance, as there is no time during the test to search for information. Some people I know who did not get through had not spent much time on preparation.
“After being shortlisted, my selection day involved an interview and role play. The interview was very much based around the qualities and abilities required in the role. I thought the role play was particularly good for testing how I would handle matters with little time to prepare, and how I would deal with unexpected and/or inappropriate behaviour in the tribunal. It was really challenging, but I would almost say that I enjoyed it. Have a look at the role play video on the JAC website and get a feel for what this is like.
“Although this was a challenging process, on the plus side, the selection process seemed to be very open – there are applications from people from many backgrounds, so there is a better opportunity for more diverse candidates to come through.
“Sexual orientation is generally a hidden characteristic, unless you choose to reveal it. I play in the London Gay Symphony Orchestra, and I chose to mention this on my JAC application form as a way of being open about my sexual orientation. I was not asked about this in my interview, but I did not really expect to be. I did not think that this would necessarily be either an advantage or a disadvantage, but I did feel I wanted to be open about it.
“I have also been open about my sexual orientation within the tribunal and there have been no problems at all, which, again, is what I expected. You don’t necessarily know who else of your colleagues may be gay or lesbian – and it’s certainly not an issue that people feel the need to gossip about. However, I do know of plenty of other LGBT employment tribunal judges around the country. I realise there may be a perception that the judiciary would be more conservative than law firms, and possibly unwelcoming to people from different backgrounds, but that is certainly not my experience. One of the key qualities required of a judge is the ability to understand and deal fairly, irrespective of background, and people are selected on this basis. Also, the employment tribunals hear and decide claims of discrimination, including sexual orientation discrimination – so I would be particularly surprised if I encountered any prejudice from my colleagues.
“I would say that LGBT individuals should definitely feel able to apply for judicial roles if they are interested in becoming a judge. Judges are not at all what you might expect them to be. I have not felt any pressure to conform to fit in, which I think, to be honest, is more than could be said of some law firms. Don’t be scared to apply to become a judge, whatever your background – if you’re interested, just go for it.”