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Alistair MacDonald was appointed a High Court Judge (HCJ) assigned to the Family Division in 2015 at the age of 45. He was called to the Bar in 1995 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2011. He became a Recorder in 2009 hearing private and public law children cases. Alistair did not sit as a Deputy HCJ before appointment as a HCJ. Since becoming a High Court judge he has joined a JAC panel to help assesses judicial applications. Alistair talks about his experience of both sides of the selection process and what it’s like to sit in the High Court.
“I would say to anyone considering applying for the High Court: be absolutely certain before you take the plunge. You’ve got to be sure it’s what you want to do before you apply. Once you’re sure then give it absolutely everything you’ve got. I got to a stage where I had been at the Bar for 20 years and, although I thoroughly enjoyed being a QC, I was looking for a change. I wanted a new intellectual challenge and to use my skills in a different arena. The Family Division of the High Court appeared to present a suitably challenging environment and to offer a much wider scope of complex legal problems to examine and resolve than was provided by practice at the Bar.
“Being a High Court Judge is both intellectually challenging and rewarding from a personal perspective. It’s an incredible privilege to be deciding cases at the cutting edge of family law. Cases often reflect the current issues in society more widely. It is also rewarding to undertake a public service that is very important and to be part of an institution which I hope does an awful lot of good. The Family Division also provides a very friendly and supportive working environment. I have great colleagues and my work life balance as a judge is far healthier than it was at the Bar. Whilst the job does sometimes involve work in the evenings and at weekends, I do have a good deal more free time than I did as a lawyer, so juggling other commitments is easier.
“If, like me, you don't live near London you may find that being away from your family Monday to Friday can have an impact on family life. Whilst the change is manageable, you need to think carefully about this aspect of the sacrifice that the job entails.
“My background is perhaps not typical of what the public traditionally might expect of a High Court Judge. I attended a state school and was the first in my family to go to university. You do not have to have gone to public school and on to Oxbridge to be a judge. I have found my particular background to be no impediment to achieving this position.
“I found the merit based selection process adopted by the JAC for the High Court competition to be very challenging. The interview and scenario based questions were extremely rigorous, as one would expect given the nature of the job that one is applying for. It wouldn’t, of course, be fair to candidates to have a test that didn’t reflect the gravity of, and challenge presented by the job that lies at the end of the selection process.
"From my work as a JAC panel member my first piece of advice is: read the instructions. I’ve seen a large number of applications where the candidate has not taken on board the requirement to give fully evidenced examples of their abilities rather than mere assertions, thereby doing themselves an injustice. If you read carefully, digest and apply the advice on the JAC website you are already well ahead of many people completing the application form. You have not only to be exceptional in your practice and experience but you need to be able to demonstrate your exceptionality. Saying “I’m a really good lawyer” isn’t enough. If it has been a number of years since you last completed a job application then you need to know that selection processes have moved on dramatically. You need to educate yourself on the JAC process and what the expectations are.
“Being a High Court Judge in the Family Division has been all that I had hoped and more. Variety is the spice of life and you never know what is going to come across your desk on any given day. Whatever it is, it’s always interesting and stimulating. It is an endlessly fascinating and rewarding job.”