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, a specialist Senior Circuit Judge in 2013 and a Designated Civil Judge in 2015, first in London and then East Anglia.
“I have now been sitting as a judge full-time for just over 11 years. The time has passed remarkably quickly. I had been appointed to a full-time position as a criminal Circuit Judge when I was 42 and had a busy property/chancery practice, which was both interesting and intellectually challenging. I had been a Recorder for 6 years, loved sitting, was encouraged to apply for a full-time appointment. My children were both then aged under 5 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 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 it was in the Crown Court and 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 area of law about which I had no familiarity 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. The rumours that a judge’s life was a lonely one are just that – rumours. There is a 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, and sitting in different locations and in different 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. Unlike work as a busy practitioner, it is not always the situation that you are working on many cases at the same time. It is likely that while you are hearing one case, there will be a judgment, or two, that needs to be written, and other applications that need to be heard, together with the many matters that need to be 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. Another 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. It is enormously satisfying to resolve long-running disputes.
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 in the various District Registries in the region. 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 is the sense of achievement.
I recommend anyone to make the application to start on a judicial course. The process may seem daunting but it’s well worth the effort.