Further cuts and the online recorder test debacle are enough to make solicitors long for the days of inkwells, pink ribbon, and a publicly funded justice system that worked for all, writes John van der Luit-Drummond
Much has been exercising the legal profession over the past week, not least the government’s proposed ‘Helen Archer’ law, designed to prevent violent partners from cross-examining their victims in the family court. The proposals have led to much debate in legal circles over the routine use of loaded terminology which fails to acknowledge the presumption of innocence.
While the Ministry of Justice’s attempt at protecting domestic abuse victims can be applauded, its plans to cut a further £30m from its budget – by reducing payments to court-appointed advocates in criminal cases to legal aid rates and changing the litigators graduated fee scheme – is unsustainable and self-defeating. Being a criminal lawyer hasn’t paid for some time, and it’s about to get a whole lot harder. It’s almost enough to make some consider a career change.
While some practitioners have long heard the bench call to them, for others, such aspirations are far more recent. For criminal solicitors in particular, the sight of 30 part-time criminal recorder slots looks a tempting proposition, even if for no other reason than self-preservation from MoJ cuts. Those that tried to apply, however, probably wished they had never bothered.
The Judicial Appointments Commission’s much-publicised search for the ‘100 best recorders’ hit an awkward snag this week after its ‘extensively road-tested’ online test went haywire, leaving thousands of solicitors and barristers once again frustrated by technology. Exasperated lawyers attempting to sit the 75-minute, two-part test were left unsure as to whether they had completed the multiple-choice exam as various error and ‘service temporarily unavailable’ messages popped up on their screens. Then the website crashed completely.
As nearly 2,500 recorder hopefuls have potentially already seen the questions, a resit of the test has been ruled out and the JAC has decided to pass all applicants through to the next round of testing. Only 60 per cent of candidates had been expected to progress to the next stage so the assessment panel will have its work cut out marking the online written scenario test – assuming the website works, of course.
The debacle is an embarrassment for the JAC’s vice-chairman, Lord Justice Burnett, who told Solicitors Journal last month that the IT problems experienced in previous years had been ‘ironed out’. The commission has blamed the technical difficulties not on gremlins in the system, but on the sheer volume of interest in recorder vacancies. That excuse doesn’t wash.
Having received 1,250 applications in 2015, the JAC expected significant interest. And with the recorder role the first step to more senior judicial positions, the latest selection process was always going to attract attention, even more so after the commission and the Lord Chancellor went to great lengths to promote openings they hoped would lead to a more diverse judiciary.
Those expecting an uneventful rollout of the much-anticipated digital court system must surely be thinking again following the JAC’s application chaos. Government-backed IT projects rarely launch without a hitch, as was the case with this particular quango’s application process. It certainly won’t be the last.
Still, curiosity in a judicial career clearly remains, as was evident on the pages of the journal this past week. Among our Top 10 stories online were Burnett LJ encouraging solicitors to become recorders; Sarah Jane Lynch explaining why she made the move from child care solicitor to circuit court judge; and how salaried judges have lately considered quitting over poor pay and pensions. If inadequate pay, poor working conditions, a lack of support, and fear for your own personal safety doesn’t put you off, then you could be just what the judiciary needs.
However, those solicitors harbouring judicial aspirations might consider jumping a few rungs up the ladder by applying for one of the three vacancies now advertised for the Supreme Court. In addition to the prestige of adjudicating some of the most complex cases in the UK, and the hefty £200,000 plus salary that brings, is the comparative ease of the application process itself: an application form, CV, and 2,000-word essay sent via the wonders of email.
No hair-pulling multiple-choice tests in sight. No taunting error messages that have you reaching for your novelty gavel. It’s almost enough to make you reminisce on inkwells, parchment, briefs tied up with pink ribbons, and a publicly funded justice system that worked for all.
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal