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Helena Suffield-Thompson is a Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber in the South West. She is a former Partner and Head of Criminal Litigation
"When I applied for the role of Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal I was delighted to be invited to complete the qualifying test. However, I have a degenerative spinal condition which means I occasionally get spinal block. This can last for weeks and leave me unable to stand. So, sadly I had to phone the JAC and say 'I can't do it'. The lady I spoke to could not have been more helpful and said 'yes you can'!
"She asked how I would be most comfortable and I explained I had spent the last few weeks lying down. So she booked me a room with a bed and arranged for me to take the test lying down. It is so important for people to know that they can ask for the support they need and in my experience the JAC did everything they could to help.
"I had never thought seriously about applying for a judicial role, I didn't think someone like me would be wanted. I thought I was too young and my disability would be a nuisance which is how I was made to feel in private practice.
"It was a chance discussion in court with a District Judge who works in this area that set the ball rolling. She said I would be ideal and really encouraged me to apply – she even texted me the details of the selection exercise.
"The role came up at just the right time and was a good fit for my experience. Disability is a big issue for me personally, and I wanted to bring my personal experience to this role as well as my legal practice.
"My job as criminal solicitor was in a very male dominated environment and I had to work harder and be better to carve a niche for myself. When I looked at the case studies on the JAC website it really encouraged me to see people like me who have succeeded. That made me feel 'I can do this job – I can go for it'.
"I did find some parts of the selection process challenging but others were straightforward. All round it was a tough experience and so it should be; it's a serious job.
"My advice for the interview would be: 'be yourself'. I believe they are looking at the all-round person, not someone who gives the answers they think the panel want to hear. The role play was fine – as a litigation lawyer it was what I did all day. The qualifying test was more challenging as I hadn't done any kind of exam since university. I did read past papers on the JAC website in advance. With these tests you can't just take the approach of 'turn up and do it' – you do have to put the work in.
"The JAC could not have been more supportive throughout. I want to encourage others and give them the confidence to go for it. If you have a disability it is part of you but it doesn't have to define you."