As a law student I was always enamoured by the power and prestige of Judges dispensing their wisdom on seemingly matters of life and death. The image bestowed of their wigs and gowns simply giving credence to that notion of the pomp and ceremony of some bygone Elizabethan age. When however I attended court for the first time as a trainee solicitor I realised that the world of the Judge was perhaps not as glamorous as perhaps Martin Shaw’s portrayal of Judge John Deed on the BBC would have us believe.
The world of the District Judge can be littered with the monotony of undefended divorces; small claim RTAs; applications for this, that and the other and oh yes heartbreaking housing possession applications.
But still it holds a fascination for me. The ultimate ambition for any lawyer, well aside from being a multi-millionaire partner in some high profile media firm in the heart of the West End. To be a Judge. Gosh wouldn’t Mum be proud?
And there on the wall at the Medway County Court stood a poster saying “Your Country Needs You”, well alright that was not the exact phrase, but it did ask whether I wanted to “Shadow a Judge”. My first thought was that this was some Government initiative gone mad. The Prime Minister had finally flipped (I make no comment) and wanted all lawyers to join MI5 and follow the Judges, those agent provocateurs and report on their misdemeanours. And to think the Times Law Report does a pretty good job of that every day. As I looked forward to my Spooks training I read the rest of the poster and a statement from Lord Falconer who gave a slightly different spin on what they were looking for: -
“Our society needs a talented and diverse judiciary. DCA is keen to encourage all lawyers to think about the prospect of a judicial career and to learn what it might mean. Women, minority ethnic and disabled lawyers are currently under-represented in the judiciary. The Judicial Work Shadowing Scheme gives lawyers the opportunity to see at first hand what judges do, as well as discuss what it is really like to sit judicially. Why not spend a few days shadowing a judge? It could help you make an informed decision as to whether a judicial appointment is really for you. I recommend the Scheme to you wholeheartedly”
Well with such an invitation from so prominent a lawyer as the Lord Chancellor how could I refuse?
The scheme, which has been running officially for six years, allows solicitors and barristers in England and Wales to spend up to five days observing the work of either a Circuit Judge, District Judge (civil) or District Judge (magistrates’ court) both in and out of court. The scheme, which is administered by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, seeks to give those who may one day seek judicial appointment the opportunity to see what the job is really like. It allows an opportunity to see what a Judge’s main duties include, from preparing for trial, case management, presiding over court proceedings, hearing actions, sentencing, determining application and giving judgments.
Informal work shadowing has been arranged on a personal level at various courts and with various Judges for a number of years on an ad hoc basis. The scheme is free of charge but you must of course cover your own travel and expenses. Care should also be taken to minimise any conflicts of interest as it would not be too appropriate (to say the least) for someone to shadow a case where his or her firm was representing one of the parties.
I completed the form (was dead easy) and a few months later I turned up at my local County Court to shadow the resident District Judge. It is a rather odd experience to be taken into the private office of the local District Judge, reminiscent perhaps of a visit to the Headmaster whilst at school. The cane however being supplanted this time with a cup of tea and a sticky bun. And here I was sharing a cosy chat with a Judge who to my mind had victimised (well ignored) me for years. He had refused my applications, questioned my arguments and never ever given me costs. Yet here we were chewing the fat over his cases for the day, his thoughts on changes in the law and why I might (well one day) want to become a Judge. It was illuminating. The establishment had opened its doors to little old me. My mum would have been over the moon.
I began to realise that resident Judges are more than just Judges; they have an interaction with the court staff, which borders on a management role at a medium sized business. This would range from their involvement in understanding why a radiator was not working in Counsel’s robing room to a letter from an irate solicitor questioning the ability and birth of a court worker. There is a fair chance that the Judge will see any rude/sarcastic/unhelpful letter; or equally hear about how a lawyer presented him or herself on the telephone. It is not a particularly good idea to shout at the court clerk or usher, as the reality is that that Solicitor’s reputation might well be marked the next time he is in front of that Judge. Judges it would seem have very long memories and seemingly talk regularly to their fellow Judges either via the Internet or at numerous seminars that they attend around the country to share knowledge and update their legal understanding (and I imagine swap gossip). Note to myself never berate the court staff again. Even if they are being difficult!
The highlight of the event however was sitting next to the Judge in court. Not on the bench, so to speak but a little away and on a different level (so as to emphasis the distinction) facing the advocates. This appears to give the impression that the advocates presenting their cases are presenting their cases to you alone. It is easy to get caught up in the moment and nod at the pleasing arguments and smile at those, which are a little more desperate. You almost have to shy away at times when the advocates are staring at you hopefully, trying to convince you of their arguments; trying to catch your eye with an obsequious smile.
If the Judge is not with them, then maybe you are? But unfortunately my thoughts hold no value whatsoever in the decision making process (well not yet anyway). But the real value of this exercise is that you get the opportunity to watch other advocates fighting it out in a real situation. You get the opportunity to objectively assess what works in persuading you of an argument (and of course the Judge) and what does not work. The better advocates are those who know their papers, know where to find things quickly in their papers and are on top of the brief. Sniffing does not go down well. Nor does talking too fast or too quietly. Practice not only breeds confidence, but also professionalism.
You also get to see the benefit of properly preparing the papers which are sent to court. As a trainee spending hours undertaking trial bundles I always thought that this process was a real pain. Pagination, pagination, pagination!!! How many files? Could anything be duller? But if you are the Judge faced with loose papers, pages missing or no file at all, then you can take an early dislike to someone and perhaps also their case. Officially this would not factor in their decision making process, but in reality, you do the maths.
At the end of the week, I was exhausted. It felt for the first time in a long time that I had been involved in real law, using and really understanding that law I had learnt so meticulously at Law School.
I found the whole experience not only refreshing but enlightening. I personally think that as a result of the shadowing experience I have become a better lawyer (my Senior Partner may of course take a different view). I listen better. I think more about what I will have to do, not only to advise my client, but to win a case in court.
In my opinion the shadowing of a Judge should be compulsory and studied by all lawyers during their training contract or indeed pupillage. If I have learnt only one thing it is that Judges are indeed also human (well most of them). In recent years I have on occasions questioned their origins. They have a real passion with the law and in finding as best they can justice.
Finally, will I become a judge? For now, well I think I will keep my own counsel.
If you like more information on the shadowing scheme then phone the DCA on 0207 210 1681 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org