1. Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a judge.
I was born to parents who were living in Wallsend near Newcastle. Both had manual jobs but neither enjoyed good health and by the time I was 10 they were both unable to work and we were reliant on state benefits; both had died before I came to the Bar.
I did want to become a lawyer when I was young but there wasn't a path apparent to me and at 16 I left school. I carried out a succession of jobs but also studied for A-levels at a local further education college at night and then a law degree.
By then I had decided I would like to become a barrister, it was clear to me that the work was interesting and I met a very successful and experienced barrister who had persuaded me that the Bar would be better for me than becoming a solicitor. He was certainly persuasive and is still a busy practitioner.
At the age of 26, I qualified as a barrister and managed to find pupillage in a tiny chambers in Middlesbrough, finding that pupillage was very hit and miss and I was lucky. There I learned the value of determination and being available for any case at any time. Occasional small cases led to more frequent and later larger cases. My practice grew as I had hoped might be the case - I substituted for a double booked solicitor in the Magistrates court; later they sent me more work and mentions in the Crown Court later became trials.
After a few years I was encouraged to join a larger chambers and work was much more freely available. After 15 years or so I began to think about becoming a judge. The seed was planted, I think, by seeing other members of chambers and opponents at the Bar becoming judges and to an extent demystifying the process.
I became a recorder after applying to the JAC and a year or so later I applied to become an Immigration Judge. It was an unusual route and some of my contemporaries thought I should stick to what I knew, but I wanted a change and I was made a full-time Immigration Judge.
I thought that I might end my career there making decisions - I certainly didn't think I would be promoted. I enjoyed sitting as a judge but when I was given the chance to organise things, I found that perhaps even more enjoyable, and I did that in Immigration for 3 years, then became Deputy President in HESC where I remained for 5 years. I moved to President of The Social Entitlement Chamber 4 years ago.
2. What is the most rewarding thing about being a judge; has life at the bench met your expectations?
Work always feels better if it is worthwhile and the decision-making of a judge is almost always that. It is important not only to the parties but also the public in general. Life at the bench has far exceeded any expectations I had; I saw it as work, but it is perhaps correct to express the question as one of a life choice. I have met many interesting and exceptional people and come to know some of them well - it has been one of the best parts.
3. How did your journey to becoming a judge compare to your journey to becoming a barrister? Did you face any obstacles in either case relating to your background?
Joining the bench felt easier than coming to the Bar; it was a defined application process, much less reliant on luck as application to chambers was far more random in the early 80s. The Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) has made a great effort to get recruitment right and it means a great deal to them. I still have a fairly broad North East accent, so I am easily identifiable, but I really have had no problems relating to my background. Money to study was tight, but it was an entirely different system from today.
4. What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to transitioning to the Bench from the Bar?
Support at first came in the form of knowing others who were Recorders and becoming Circuit Judges in chambers. That was important in making me realise that judges were simply experienced and able lawyers, not a separate species. I received a letter inviting me to apply as an immigration judge which was a campaign at the time (2002), and it helped me to take action, to understand I had skills that were in demand on the bench. Without exception, every time I approached a judge to ask for advice they gave me time and encouragement; I am surprised by how little I am approached for advice.
5. How do you use your experience of coming to the judiciary from a non-traditional background to support those seeking to do the same, and/or to inform your work? How does having a diverse range of backgrounds represented on the bench serve the public's interest?
I have given talks at schools and universities, participated in JAC outreach evenings with aspiring lawyers, made videos for the same reason, and given advice whenever asked. I hope being approachable and engaging with others makes the bench appear more obviously a part of society. My accent may assist with demonstrating we aren't all the same.
6. What are the challenges facing today's aspiring judges, and how could they be addressed?
The judiciary - in common with all workers - faces massive future changes; who knows where artificial intelligence will take us? On a daily level it is less social than the Bar, which I miss, but the judiciary have an opportunity to make lasting beneficial change in how our system of justice works and that is very motivating.
7. What advice would you give someone from a non-traditional background, seeking to succeed at both the Bar and the Bench?
Persistence and a broad view. Firstly, become a judge, it is worthwhile, and apply not only in your area of particular expertise, we train many lawyers to work in different areas. You won't be successful in many applications, but keep going, don't be discouraged, take advice, your skills are needed, and you will at some point be successful.