Karen Walden-Smith, Designated Civil Judge and Deputy High Court Judge

Karen Walden-Smith is currently the Designated Civil Judge (DCJ) for East Anglia and a Deputy High Court Judge (DHCJ). She practised as a barrister and sat as a Recorder before being appointed as a full-time Circuit Judge in 2010. In April 2013 she was appointed as a Deputy High Court Judge (DHCJ), going on to become a specialist Senior Circuit Judge in August 2013 and a Designated Civil Judge (DCJ) in 2015, first in London and then in East Anglia.

“I have now been sitting as a salaried full-time judge for just over 13 years. The time has passed remarkably quickly. I was appointed at age 42 as a full-time salaried Circuit Judge in Crime even though my private practice was focused in property/chancery work. Although my practice at the Bar was both interesting and intellectually challenging, I had been a fee-paid Recorder for six years, loved sitting, and was encouraged to apply for a full-time appointment. My children were both aged under five at the time and I had a choice to either stay at the Bar, continue to work hard and apply for Silk, or start a new challenge and work hard to develop a new career as a judge. I was attracted to public service and, being fully committed to the provision of a totally fair, open, and accessible justice system, being a judge seemed like the most direct way of fulfilling that commitment. Also, I knew that by staying at the Bar the nature of my work meant that if I wanted to be the best I could be in my professional life, I ran the risk of sacrificing crucial family time I wanted to enjoy with my children.

Becoming a Recorder or other part-time judge is a great way of finding out whether you enjoy the role of being a judge, and whether you are suited to it. When I started sitting as a Recorder in the Crown Court it was my first experience of a jury. Having had no prior criminal experience it was a challenge, but a good one. Learning about an unfamiliar area of law was a fascinating process and one I relished. I learnt very quickly the importance of good counsel, who are happy to assist, and the benefit of supportive colleagues. I can happily dispel any rumour that a judge’s life is a lonely one! There is great comradery among judges and from the start I found my colleagues always willing to give their time and experience. I soon started sitting in Civil and Chancery, as well as Crime – sitting in various locations in a range of jurisdictions was a great opportunity to get to know more judges and to find out how different courts operate. It also made me realise just how much I enjoy the work of a judge.

A major difference between private practice and the judiciary (other than the inevitable drop in income) is that as a judge the work is more regular and controllable. It is likely that while you are hearing one case, there will be a judgment, or two, in other cases that need to be written, and other applications that need to be heard, or determined, on the papers. However, it is not the same as trying to prepare for a major trial, while advising in other cases both on paper and in conference. Weekends are definitely more your own and on a Monday morning rather than presenting the opening arguments for your client, you are listening to those arguments having familiarised yourself with the case beforehand. A major difference is that you are not working to present a case on behalf of someone else. Your job as a judge is to endeavour to find the right legal and factual answer, not to obtain a result that your client wants. A former President of the Supreme Court told me how liberating he had found that when he started sitting, and I agree. It is enormously satisfying to resolve long-running, seemingly intractable disputes, so that parties can get on with the rest of their lives. As a judge, you have a real sense of the importance of a functioning justice system for the benefit of society as a whole whether that is in Crime, Civil or Family.     

My life as a judge has been a full one. As the DCJ I have leadership responsibility, including pastoral care, for the judges sitting in Civil throughout Essex, Suffolk, Norwich and Cambridgeshire in addition to the ‘day job’ of sitting in a wide range of civil cases, including the most significant claims issued across the region in the various District Registries. As a DHCJ I am fortunate to be ’ticketed’ to sit in a number of jurisdictions, including in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, the Queen’s Bench Division and the Administrative Court. I have also sat in the Chancery Division and as a judge of the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) and I sit as a Category 1 (murder-ticketed) Crown Court Judge. Life is busy, but never dull.

The work I do is interesting and varied. I have been able to combine the work in court with providing support for judges who work in my region with the aim of making everything work a little more smoothly. No two days are the same, but always there is the sense of achievement. 

I recommend anyone to make the application to take on a full-time job as a circuit judge. There is a whole range of work that you can do, and you can feel a real sense of achievement in your work. The actual process of applying may seem daunting but it’s well worth the effort.”

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