Sarah Lambert holds fee-paid judicial office both as a Deputy Costs Judge in the Senior Courts Costs Office (SCCO) and as a Recorder in crime and civil.
What made you consider applying?
“This is not my first judicial appointment. My first judicial appointment was as a criminal recorder in 2012. That I applied for the role and was successful in that application should I hope give courage to anybody thinking of applying for any judicial role but feeling unsure, unready or under qualified. I had never practised crime at the Bar. At the time I also had 5 children at home, 4 still of primary school age, 1 on the autistic spectrum. I would honestly not have thought of applying but it was encouragement, or more truthfully a strong kick from 2 colleagues in chambers, that got me to do it. They basically told me to stop being so self-doubting and to get on with it. I remember asking at the time what expertise I could possibly offer, but during the process this was answered, the role involves the application of law to facts; that is not a subject-specific skill. The entire process of training, support, and the enormous task and privilege of the job has been unparalleled, and I would simply pass on to anyone what was said to me, “Don’t be shy. Apply”.”
How did you find the selection process?
“I think it has to be acknowledged that the selection process requires preparation. The initial stage of form completion takes time, and you really have to treat this as a necessity. There is an art to being able to look at your experience and skills and to present them, with individual concrete examples, to demonstrate your suitability. Not everyone is naturally comfortable setting out what they did, and I would definitely ask someone else to discuss it with you, and unfailingly those who have been through the process are more than willing to give guidance. Asking people to referee for you is also not as difficult as it might seem, and actually turned out to be a positive experience. The interview stages I actually enjoyed, and by then you can be yourself. I wouldn’t let the process put you off, and if anything, it is very good practice and experience for future competitions. For the costs judge post, if you have a background and interest in costs, the interview stage is likely to be an enjoyable experience rather than an ordeal!”
What do you enjoy about where you work?
“The SCCO is a unique institution and it is a small, self-contained and genuinely friendly place. I have sat here as a deputy since 2013, and thoroughly recommend it to anybody interested in costs. Based exclusively on 2 floors of the Thomas More building at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the SCCO judiciary comprises a small and specialist group of full and part-time costs judges and costs officers, led by a supportive, progressive and readily available Senior Judge.
The workload is exclusively costs, and it must be acknowledged that costs is often thought of as a dry subject. Certainly, there’s a lot of law involved. It would be a rare day if no case law was referenced. However, there are also real human and commercial elements to the costs work of the SCCO. We do not deal with costs in advance of, or during proceedings as in other courts, but exclusively after proceedings have ended. The SCCO therefore represents the stage for the final chapter of litigation, and what happens here is as a result of great importance to the parties. To those seeking to recover their costs after, often, years of litigation at terrifying expense, this is at last the finishing line, and recovery of their outlay or liability in sight. For those who have lost in underlying claims, this is a second hit, and they face the approach of the final order to pay the costs of their unsuccessful litigation. Even in uncontentious matters, the SCCO represents to firms the final arbiter of their profit recovery on any bill, so it is important to be very conscious of the anxiety that costs proceedings can bring to those involved.
There is endless variety in the nature of the underlying cases, because the consideration of costs necessarily entails consideration of the files of the case concerned. There is also a range of advocates appearing; specialist costs silks and juniors, solicitors, costs lawyers, hugely experienced costs draftsmen and many litigants in person, some of the latter keen to attempt to re-litigate in front of you the claim that they have lost elsewhere – this is the final throw of their dice. You will need people skills, understanding, empathy, commercialism, authority and knowledge, as a well as the ability to run your court without the assistance of a clerk or usher. We call our own cases on by the use of lights, and there is no reception or check- in desk for the parties, they come directly to your room and knock on the door if it is a face to face hearing. Remote working is easily accomplished as a result of electronic bills and the SCCO’s e-filing system. This has made SCCO readily suited to the recent challenges of the COVID-19 era and ideal for those wanting to work from home.
The work is document and submission based in the main and witnesses are rare. The hearings also involve much more interaction than in some other judicial roles, because typically you rule on a point by point basis rather than at the conclusion of a hearing, and it is rewarding to be part of a developing process of achieving resolution of outstanding costs disputes. I never forget that the parties are in front me because they cannot agree. The role of the costs judge is to move that dispute on to resolution, deciding what the parties cannot.
The fixed location, small number of judges, and specialised nature of the work make it very easy to build supportive relationships and exchange views. Rather like a family, there is always someone ready and willing to assist with any queries, always someone to pop in and chat to or discuss points with. There is also opportunity to meet with costs judges from around the country at the annual costs’ judges’ seminar.”