Peter Wilkinson is an Employment Judge and also a First Tier Tribunal Judge in the Social Entitlement Chamber.
I was educated at a catholic comprehensive school in the midlands, which I left aged 17, without sitting my A ‘Level exams and took up a job in a print works.
I lost my job when the company closed a year later, and I took a job as a labourer in a dog biscuit factory.
Things went from bad to worse and by the age of 20, I was homeless, sleeping on benches and on the stairs in a bus station. I was fortunate to be helped back into housing by a friend’s mother, who paid my rental deposit for me, and I enrolled on a course in motorcycle engineering in London, paid for by my local authority in Warwickshire. I qualified at TEC level 4 in 1984.
I spent a few years in the motorcycle world, running workshops and restoring vintage and classic motorcycles, then I moved into petrol retail, working my way up to running my own chain of petrol stations. However, this fell through in the 1990s and left me broke, unemployed and still without any academic qualifications. Naturally, I decided to become a lawyer.
I was offered a place to study law at university based on the UCAS points attached to my engineering qualifications, subject to my demonstrating recent academic achievement, by passing an A’ Level of my choice at grade A. I studied for my exam part-time in the evenings, whilst managing a tile warehouse. In due course, I achieved my grade A and went on to study law at the University of Kent at Canterbury, as it then was.
I graduated from Kent in 2002 and was awarded a scholarship and a bursary from Inner Temple, which paid for my bar course at Nottingham. Having undertaken pupillage with William Geldart at 6 King’s Bench Walk, I settled into a career at the bar and into my current practice as a family lawyer.
The idea of becoming a judge had never occurred to me. I struggled enough to believe that I had become a successful barrister, so the idea of being a judge seemed so far beyond my reach as to be wholly unachievable. I was concerned that my background would count against me. I did not believe that people like me were appointed as judges. As a result, the idea of a judicial appointment was never on my radar.
A couple of years ago, a judge in front of whom I appeared regularly in family court asked me whether I had thought of becoming a judge. She encouraged me to think about it. So I did, and I spoke to my head of chambers, who was then a Deputy District Judge. He encouraged me to apply and helped me to understand the process.
Fortified by the encouragement and good wishes of my betters, I duly applied in the next open recruitment round. I read the guidance on the JAC website, I spent time considering the competencies and how my experience fitted into them and I took advice on preparation from colleagues who had already been appointed. I found the materials on the JAC site to be very useful in preparing for the interview and in understanding what to expect.
Having never done anything like this, I did not expect to be successful at the first attempt (or possibly at all). I was thus very pleasantly surprised to be offered a position as an Employment Judge and also as a First-tier Tribunal Judge in the Social Entitlement Chamber.
I have now been sitting for around 9 months and am thoroughly enjoying the very different perspective afforded by a place on the bench. The work I do is varied and rewarding. There is a real sense of helping people to resolve the apparently irresolvable. The break from the unrelentingly adversarial nature of my practice is also welcome, although I have noticed already that a better understanding of the judicial process is making my submissions as an advocate shorter and more focussed.
I would encourage anyone who is considering applying to sit as a judge to pay careful attention to the JAC materials, consider the required competencies and how your experience might help you in a judicial role and above all to approach the process fearlessly and with an open mind. I would also counsel that you try to put out of your mind your own preconceptions about yourself and about the profile of a ‘typical’ Judge. As I have already discovered, there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ judge. My new colleagues are from all backgrounds and all walks of life.
The worst that can happen if you apply is that you do not succeed. Then you can always try again. It really is worth it.