I was born and raised in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. I was the eldest daughter of the well-respected village butcher, who pushed me to go to grammar school and from the age of 13 years old, I developed a very definite aspiration to become a solicitor. The first in my family to undertake tertiary level education, I completed my LL.B (Hons) Degree in English Law at Dundee University, Scotland, and immediately thereafter, completed my Legal Practice Course at the University of the West of England, in Bristol. I qualified as a solicitor in January 2004, specialising in criminal defence and immigration law. During my career I have also spent time lecturing. I hold appointments as a Deputy Judge of the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) and Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal (Social Entitlement Chamber).
During my training contract, the rules on judicial appointments changed so that solicitors with at least three years PQE were eligible to apply for judicial appointment. Always an ambitious individual and having seen barristers and solicitors that I worked closely with, sitting on the bench in the Magistrates’ Court, my aim shifted from becoming the partner of a law firm, to becoming a judge. From that point onward, my goal was set.
I undertook judicial shadowing with a District Judge at Manchester Magistrates’ Court and started to compile my list of competency examples with the aim of becoming a District Judge myself. The moment I was eligible to apply, I put in my first application for a post as a District Judge (Magistrates’ Court). I got through to the interview stage but made it no further. The same happened in my second and third applications, but this time for Deputy District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) posts. I was getting through the exams and the self-assessments but not managing to convince in the interviewers that I was selectable. I resolved to make the next application count, so using the feedback from the previous three applications, and practising my interview style, I fine-tuned an application which I initially foresaw as a “practice run” for the next DJ post in the Magistrates’ Court, but my efforts were successful and I was appointed as a Fee-paid Judge of the First Tier Tribunal (Social Entitlement Chamber) in May 2014. I attended the training for the post, having given birth prematurely to my daughter just five months prior, and in the middle of studying for an MSc in Psychology – both the early birth and the appointment were something of a surprise! I was delighted to have secured my first judicial appointment as a 36-year-old solicitor, and from the position of a Senior Lecturer in Law (albeit with continuing practice experience) rather than straight from practice.
After a few more attempts, my next successful application was a second fee-paid role as Deputy Judge of the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber), which I commenced in November 2018, shortly after an operation to remove a brain tumour, which had been identified mid-way through the competition process. It was both exciting and challenging learning a new role, as well as being responsible for ensuring that judicial decisions made at the First-tier Tribunal are legally sound. Indeed, sitting at the Upper Tribunal, was improved by work at the First-tier as both roles are interconnected. The experience of making decisions in a case and being able to manage the demands of a Tribunal hearing, has simply encouraged me to strive for judicial posts that are even further up the career ladder. This is something which is actively encouraged by the JAC and there are always opportunities to move up the ladder from within, once you have an appointment, depending on the role to be filled.
The process for selection takes time, goes through a number of stages and to be honest, it is not for the faint hearted. That said, once you become familiar with the process, and providing you allocate plenty of time to the preparation required, it becomes less daunting and feels much more achievable. Indeed, it is achievable!
The one part you can prepare for well in advance, and it is advisable to do so, is the writing of your self-assessment. It is important to pick good examples to demonstrate how you meet each of the competencies well before you complete and submit your self-assessment for a competition. If something happened at work, or at home, or in my private life, that I could see demonstrated a competency, I took five minutes to make a note of it, ensuring that I noted the Situation, Task, Action and Result, so that I could write it out in full detail in due course. It is so much easier to write a self-assessment, when you have the examples already chosen.
I always felt nervous at the assessment day but the roles I was successful in achieving related to the assessment days that I attended having completed the best preparation and having walked into the room with confidence. I try to see it as an opportunity to play the role of Judge – the role I want to be in – so I try to enjoy the feeling and trust that the rest will just happen naturally.
It is such an empowering feeling to have reached the pinnacle of my legal career, particularly at such a relatively young age, and with such an atypical background to what one might expect. The reality is that diversity is prevalent in judicial appointments now so no one should feel unsuitable simply because of their circumstances. I feel very honoured to have been entrusted with the responsibility of making important decisions about the court users and their lives, while also ensuring that the law is upheld in a manner which safeguards justice and fairness for all parties in the case.
I enjoy the camaraderie of working alongside the other panel members and the Tribunal staff, who ensure the hearings run smoothly, and you soon feel like part of a large but well-known team all working together to achieve the determination of a variety of different cases. I have learned to be both assertive and empathetic to secure the trust and respect of the court user, so that even if a decision does not fall in their favour, they can learn to accept it. Managing a hearing was daunting at first, but I soon settled into it, and I now have my own style in dealing with my hearings, one which the other panel members are also familiar with, which aids in the working relationships. It is a hugely satisfying part of the job to make a legal decision which you are confident is legally just, while also ensuring the court user understands the reason for your decision, even though they may not agree with it. The Judicial role requires a range of people management skills and an ability to maintain your composure and authority – a delicate combination to master.
If anyone has even the slightest inclination to give this process a try, I say do it! You never know until you try, and if you succeed, you will never experience a feeling quite like the one you get when you open that email to say you are being appointed as a judicial office holder after the months of hard work striving to get there. Don’t let personal challenges put you off either – let them be even more reason to achieve what you wish to achieve. Judicial appointment is a rewarding and highly interesting career path to start on and one which I look forward to continuing along.