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More solicitors needed for judicial posts

6 October 2009

The Judicial Appointments Commission has called on more solicitors to apply for judicial positions in its latest recruitment round.

A selection exercise for 193 deputy district judges, the first since 2004, opened on 1 October and will run until 22 October. A separate round for 40 civil recorders, expected to sit in the new Civil Jurisdiction Centres, should start on 8 October.

The JAC has been encouraging more solicitors to apply but research it had carried out by the British Market Research Bureau still shows that a large number of solicitors feel they do not have backing from the firm.

According to the research, only one in ten solicitors is “very likely” to apply, compared with three in ten for barristers.

The aspiration gap, the research found, was the main difference between barristers and solicitors, with 80 per cent of barristers saying they would get support from their chambers compared with only 45 per cent of solicitors who said they would probably receive help from their firms.

There was also a perception, particularly with solicitors in firms with more than 26 partners, that becoming a judge was a move one would make towards the end of your career.

This, though, was a false impression that the JAC is keen to dispel, insisting that full-time judicial posts require a probationary period where lawyers have been sitting part time to get the necessary experience.

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, also made the point earlier this year.

Now the JAC is secretly hoping that the recession will make more solicitors think about becoming judges as they find themselves less busy or are more worried about their careers.

The fee, while not comparable to the highest billers’ rates, is not negligible – £468 per day for DDJs and £583 for recorders.

But for most practitioners considering part-time appointments, the demands of practice remain the major obstacle.

Paul Thorn, head of matrimonial at Yorkshire firm Wake Smiths and Tofields, has been sitting as a deputy district judge since 1993. His 16 years on the bench have been a very positive experience allowing him to remain involved in areas of the law outside his own field of practice; but it comes at a price.

“The biggest issue is the impact on fee targets and clients,” he says. “As partners we have teams to run, and it can be difficult to organise your work when you have to be out of the office regularly. And there is always a concern that being out of contact with clients will impact on the service you give.”

Unlike barristers, who can more readily block days to sit as one stretch, solicitors can rarely afford to be away from practice for weeks at a time, says Thorn. And until the system changes, he says, recruiting solicitors for judicial offices will continue to be a problem.

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