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Jacqueline Blackmore has been a Chair of the Special Education Needs Tribunal, Wales (SENTW) since 2003. She is a solicitor specialising in education law. Jacqueline tells us about the role and offers advice to others considering applying.
What made you want to apply for the role of Legal member, Special Education Needs Tribunal, Wales?
My legal background is in family, child care, public and education law, so working for the SENTW seemed like a natural progression. It gives me the opportunity to work in 2 areas of law that I am passionate about: special educational needs (soon to be additional learning needs (ALN)) and disability discrimination.
It also offers a chance to become involved in the broader development of these areas of law in Wales, which is incredibly satisfying from a personal and professional perspective. For example, the SENTW and its members have been very involved in the consultation processes for the proposed ALN reforms.
What skills from your legal career do you use? How do they help you?
I think I use 3 different aspects from my legal training when I sit for the SENTW.
First, there is the technical legal knowledge that forms the framework for how to approach a case and make decisions. Second, there is the group working and people management skills that you develop over the course of a legal career that you need to deploy when working as part of a tribunal panel and when running a hearing. Third, there are the organisational and time management skills that are needed to ensure you are thoroughly prepared, can run a hearing and are able to draft a decision.
How do you fit the role in with other work?
It is not always easy to fit this ad hoc part-time role in with other commitments as cases involve preparation work and decision writing in addition to attending hearings.
I try to manage this in 2 ways: I set aside 1 or 2 days a week in term time for case preparation, issuing directions, attendance at hearings and decision writing. I also try to ensure I have sufficient additional days before and after hearings so that I am prepared and have time to write the decision. This doesn't always work out of course and there have been occasions when it has been necessary to burn the midnight oil which won't, I imagine, be something that many lawyers haven't already experienced!
What makes SENT Wales tribunal a good first step into a judicial career?
I think the role of SENTW Chair has all the demands of any other judicial role and therefore is a good way to develop judicial skills.
We sit as tribunal panels of 3, and work very much as a team, which can help when you are just starting out in a judicial career. We are a small, friendly group which is one of the real pleasures of working for the SENTW. Our President is very approachable and supportive and the tribunal secretariat is superb. You don't feel on your own when making decisions and help is on hand when it’s needed.
How do you manage the travelling for the role?
The role involves travelling around Wales as the SENTW tries to ensure accessibility by listing hearings within a reasonable travelling time of the appellant's home address. The majority of hearings take place in the larger local authority areas that generally have good transport links and the tribunal secretariat is based at Llandrindod Wells.
It does mean early starts and late returns sometimes and may require overnight stays before hearings. The upside, however, is having the privilege of travelling through some of the most glorious countryside in the world.
All in all I can thoroughly recommend working as an SENTW Chair. So if you are considering applying for this role I would encourage you to give it a go, I think you are likely to enjoy it.