Journey to the Judiciary
Do you have the experience and qualities needed to be a judge? Would a judicial role suit you? In this section you can read about the experiences of some successful previous applicants who have been through our appointments process. You may find this information helpful if you are considering whether a judicial career is for you.
I have followed a relatively unusual route to the Bench: the kind of route that might well not have brought me to this point in the days before the judicial appointments process was formalised. After starting out in a broad mix of court work in private practice, I moved into the Children’s Hearings System where I spent 10 years as a Reporter, followed by a further 10 years as the Principal Reporter. During that latter 10 years I was only in court twice, both times sitting behind Counsel in the Court of Session. Not perhaps the best preparation for judicial office. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by an experienced Sheriff to apply for a part-time post.
I was far from sure that judicial office was for me, so the option of a part-time appointment seemed a good way to gain experience and test myself out. I quickly discovered, however, that I loved the variety of work. As a Sheriff, I find no end of human interest in the cases that come before me, mingled with the professional challenges involved in making fair and correct decisions and communicating them effectively, while still dealing efficiently with large volumes of work. The sense of fellowship among judges brings another unanticipated bonus. I have never asked the audience but on occasions I have felt the need to phone a friend. Invariably I have received helpful advice or guidance when doing so.
I have twice been through the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland process: in 2005, when I was appointed as a part-time Sheriff and in 2009, following which I was appointed to a full-time position. One benefit of my previous career is that I have extensive experience of public sector recruitment processes, from both sides of the interview table. In my experience the JABS process is among the best. Many recruitment processes fall short at the first hurdle by failing to specify what qualities candidates are being asked to demonstrate and how they should demonstrate them. JABS achieves this with exemplary clarity. Thereafter the process is certainly demanding, but designed to give candidates a fair chance to show their mettle. There is probably no better way to test the candidate’s capacity to analyse law and facts than by scrutinising his or her judgments or opinions; the prepared presentation was a golden opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate a grasp of wider issues of law and justice; and the interview questions drill down into the characteristics required to be an effective judge.
With its focus on fair process and on justice for the vulnerable, my previous career has in fact proven to be a far better preparation for life on the Bench than I could have imagined. I would encourage anyone with a keen interest in justice and in people, and an ability to make decisions, to consider applying for judicial office.
My journey to my appointment as a Sheriff has been scenic and interesting . It was not necessarily a destination I planned when I embarked upon my legal career almost three decades ago. After graduating I secured a traineeship with Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co in Glasgow where I remained for ten years, becoming a partner in 1992. As well as general private client and court work I specialised in media law, advising local and national newspapers on a daily and nightly basis. It was exciting for a newly qualified lawyer and offered me an avenue to qualify in English law and become a partner in the London libel firm of Peter Carter Ruck and Partners.
After the birth of my first child I followed my ambition and pursued a career at the Bar. I established a busy civil practice before becoming an Advocate Depute in 2008. The mix of civil and criminal experience has been invaluable in my current role. As a Legal Convenor of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland I had acquired some judicial experience and I took silk in 2013.
I was once advised not consider applying for judicial appointment until you have achieved all you feel you would like to achieve as a solicitor or advocate. When the competition for appointment to the role of Sheriff was announced in 2014 I felt that time had come. While the application form is daunting it serves to focus the mind on where one’s skills lie and whether one would really be suited to the job. The requirement to provide practical examples to meet the criteria allows reflection over one’s entire career. If you think about it carefully you can surprise yourself as to the range of experience you can demonstrate.
The interview itself is demanding but there is helpful guidance on the website which enables you to prepare for the type of questions you may be asked.
Every step of the process requires time and effort and rightly so. However as I progressed through the stages I became more and more certain that this was the job I wanted.
Since taking up my appointment I have not doubted that choice. I very much enjoy the variety of work. One minute I can be dealing with summary crime , the next it can be animal welfare matters or a debate on a matter of contract. Versatility and a willingness to embrace new and unfamiliar areas of the law are essential. While the change of role is challenging it is also rewarding. As a floating sheriff I am gaining insight into the differences of approach between various sheriffs. My colleagues have been nothing but helpful and supportive.
Throughout the process and beyond I think it is important to portray your own personality and style. The diversity of the individuals appointed as Sheriffs strengthens the group as a whole.
I see this as the start of a new chapter in my legal career and look forward with enthusiasm to the years ahead.
I qualified as a solicitor in 1993 and after a few years as parliamentary counsel in London, returned to Scotland and called at the Bar in 1998. As an advocate, I practised mainly in civil law, specialising in public and administrative law. After nine years at the Bar, I was appointed crown counsel of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic where I advised the government on criminal and civil matters. That provided me with an entirely different legal perspective: the Island has a small community and operates an almost exclusively lay justice system with lay magistrates, lay advocates and lay prosecutors. As the only lawyer on Island, part of my role involved working with and training the court users. The experience made me appreciate the significance that judicial decision-making has within a small community as well as the importance of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
Before I returned to Scotland, I applied to be a part-time sheriff in the hope that I might be able to build upon my overseas experience in Scotland. I sat as a part-time sheriff for over five years but it was really only when I sat for a three-month period in Peterhead Sheriff Court that I began to appreciate what it might be like to do the job full-time. I realised then that I enjoyed making decisions, trying to reach conclusions based on sound reasoning and communicating those to court users.
As far as the appointment process is concerned, in my experience it is well worth devoting as much time to completing the application form as possible: it is important to identify relevant examples and explain how these illustrate the required skills. By the time I applied in 2014, the application form could be completed electronically which made it far easier to draft and complete. I found the interview itself to be thorough and fair. It was an advantage to be able to prepare exercises in advance which meant there was less room for the unexpected. The length of time between interview and learning of the outcome had significantly reduced from when I applied to be a part time sheriff, which meant less time agonising over the outcome!
Since taking up my full time post I have found the job hugely rewarding. The role is entirely different from being an advocate. There are no longer the highs and lows of winning or losing a case. Instead there is the daily variety of case law and challenge of making properly reasoned decisions within a high volume of work. Whilst at times demanding, it is often stimulating and provides a real sense of playing a meaningful part in the administration of justice in Scotland.
I followed a fairly conventional legal career. Having chosen to specialise in commercial litigation, I worked with two large commercial practices, eventually becoming the Head of Litigation for Scotland in my last firm. Working up the career ladder in private practice however meant moving into a managerial position and moving gradually away from what I enjoyed most – analysing and applying the law.
I had aspired to become a member of the judiciary since I first walked into Edinburgh Sheriff Court for a mock plea in mitigation, during my diploma in legal practice. At the time, however, I believed that this was an unattainable aspiration.
I did not appear to fit the demographic from which sheriffs might historically have been selected; a mother of young children, from a working class and ethnic minority background with a career specialising in the narrow field of commercial litigation. The shrieval bench was for others. I dared not even enquire into the process.
However, the creation of the Judicial Appointments Board removed the mystery which had shrouded the appointments process. I attended one of the open evenings hosted by members of the Board. I reviewed both the guidance notes and the application form. I knew that the process was going to be demanding, but I decided to throw my hat in the ring.
I have been through the recruitment process twice: I was appointed as a part-time Sheriff in 2011 and was appointed to a full time position in 2014. My appointment as a part time sheriff gave me the opportunity to gain experience and to prove to myself that this was the right job for me.
The application form is thorough and requires the applicant to give careful thought to his/her qualities and qualifications for the post. Selecting appropriate written work for submission made me reflect upon my legal ability, my powers of reasoning and my style of writing. The interview itself is rigorous - the use of case studies provides a fair means of testing the applicant's judicial qualities. It provides the applicant with an opportunity to demonstrate his or her ability to make decisions and more importantly, to justify them. The questions by the panel are challenging, wide-ranging and insightful. In short, I found the process robust but fair, transparent and surprisingly enjoyable.
I consider it an enormous privilege to serve as a member of the Scottish judiciary – the work is rewarding and varied, stimulating and challenging. There is no doubt that early life on the Bench involves a huge learning curve and requires you to turn your mind to areas of the law in which you may have little or no experience. But that is also one of its attractions. There is no shortage of more experienced sheriffs ready to assist and guide those who are newly appointed.
I would encourage anyone with a keen interest in justice and people and who enjoys interpreting and applying the law, to consider applying for judicial office.
My legal career began in 1987. With the exception of the first 10 months of my traineeship, I spent my entire career in private practice as a litigator. In that time, I dealt with everything from summary trials in the (then) District Court to multi-million pound commercial disputes in the Court of Session.
A career in the judiciary was not something I had considered until, with the encouragement of my firm, I applied to become a part time sheriff. I was fortunate enough to be appointed in 2011. I found the part time work to be both interesting and challenging, with the opportunity to sit in many different courts adding to the variety.
The then impending court reforms, coupled with a wish to become involved in more challenging judicial work and have responsibility for the management of cases, along with my experience of part time shrieval work, caused me to apply for a full time post in 2014. I was appointed as a Floating Sheriff in North Strathclyde in late 2014 and sat as a sheriff until September 2016, when I was appointed Sheriff Principal of Glasgow & Strathkelvin.
Having been through the Judicial Appointments Board application process on three occasions, I have found it to be demanding but fair.
The completion of the application form requires careful thought and some time. It causes you to think about why you are applying for the post and why you believe you are suited to it.
The interview process is challenging (as it should be), but on each occasion I have found it very fair. I thought that the use of case studies (even in areas you had no experience of in practice) was a fair way of ascertaining your ability to analyse situations and apply the relevant law and your own judgement.
My career in the law was as a criminal practitioner from 1977 to approximately 2000; I had been a partner in a firm for about 20 years and decided that I was not wishing to continue to be a criminal lawyer for the rest of my career. I resigned from the firm but continued for a number of years as a Consultant, which allowed me to seek other opportunities to do different things in the law. I obtained an appointment as a legal member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeal panel. I also became a part-time Immigration Judge sitting mainly in Glasgow and London.
I had previously been a temporary Sheriff from 1990 to 2000 and was re-appointed to that particular post as a part-time Sheriff in 2007. When I became a temporary Sheriff in 1990, the appointment was done on the basis of a recommendation. There was no formal application process. With the creation of the Judicial Appointments Board the process was radically different. It was clear from the application form that practical examples of situations I had encountered in practice was what was sought. The interview process was not as nerve racking as perhaps expected, mainly because I had gone through it when applying as a part timer. There was a written exercise in which you were questioned firstly by the legal members and then the whole panel. The questioning was robust but I never felt as though I was being cross-examined as a hostile witness!
As a solicitor I had always viewed the shrieval bench as being for others. However over the years it became apparent that appointments were being made from all branches of the profession and with the creation of the Judicial Appointments Board, appointments were being made on the basis of merit and nothing else. I think that was a great encouragement, particularly to the solicitor branch of the profession to apply for shrieval posts. It also seemed to me, as a solicitor, that perhaps, if not a natural progression, it was an aspiration which could now be achieved.
Now that I have been appointed I have seen at first hand what the job entails. As a part-time Sheriff you are generally channeled into one particular area of the law for the duration of your day at a Court. As a full timer, especially in a single Sheriff Court, you are exposed to a whole myriad of people and cases. Often you are working under pressure. The job is stimulating and interesting. Even in a small Court unusual cases crop up which require thought, care and attention. The job is as I expected it to be. In many ways you are your own boss. Decisions are yours and you require to be able to justify them. The beauty of the job is that no two days are ever the same!
On qualifying as a solicitor in 1984, I moved to the court department of my then firm. I became a partner in 1986 and spent the next twenty four years involved in court work. Initially that included criminal work but I came to specialise in civil work.
I continued to enjoy the work but with the passage of time it became less challenging. I obtained extended rights of audience in 2003 and did some Inner House work. Around 2006 I decided it was time to try and obtain a perspective of life from the other side of the bench. I wanted to become a Sheriff to develop and advance my career in the law. I wanted to involve myself in more challenging work.
I was appointed a part–time Sheriff in 2008. I enjoyed the part time work. It was varied, interesting and demanding. I found it was taking increasing amounts of my time. I concluded around 2009 that I wanted to pursue a meaningful judicial career and applied for a full time post.
The application form used by JABS has developed over the years. It is extensive and searching. Completion of the form is in itself a daunting task but in my experience it pays to take time and care in completing the form. I understand that the Board pay particular regard to the examples that are given. The material in the completed application form is the basis for some of the discussion at any interview.
Everyone will approach interview with a certain level of trepidation. Being interviewed and assessed by a group of one’s peers will never be easy but it was not, for me at least, as traumatic as I had anticipated. The atmosphere at interview is moderately relaxed and the panel members do as much as they reasonably can to put candidates at ease.
I was appointed as an All Scotland Floating Sheriff in 2010. The job is largely as I had expected it to be. Experience of the job will vary depending on whether one is a resident, a floating sheriff attached to a particular court or a floating sheriff sitting in a number of different courts. I sit in a number of different courts. I find the work is demanding but rewarding, and much more varied than I had anticipated even on the basis of my part time experience.