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Michael Fordham QC is a barrister with Blackstone Chambers, specialising in judicial review and human rights. He was appointed a Recorder in 2009, and in 2013 became a Deputy High Court Judge.
Judicial appointment. What happened next?
We caught up with Michael Fordham and asked him about the impact that becoming a Recorder has had on his career:
“Since being appointed as a Recorder I have sat in 10 or so different crown courts. I was also made a Deputy High Court Judge and I have sat in the Administrative Court in London and Manchester. I suppose I am now a hybrid engine – still mainly the brown-fuel of full-time practitioner, but switching regularly to the greener energy of judging.
“I think things look different from the other side of the fence, and it brings a new perspective to what we do as advocates, in writing and in Court. I think you get a better feel for what a judge needs from an advocate, what helps, and what really doesn’t. It also gives you confidence to spread your wings in other ways.
“Balancing judicial and other legal work is always challenging. My chambers are very supportive, and in fact I would say that my clerks, colleagues and clients all understand if I am unavailable through sitting commitments. It’s a public service, and it matters. It needs committed people doing it. To be honest, I think it has a bit of a ‘good for you’ vibe.
“The training we got before starting as Recorders was fantastic, especially on the criminal side. It needs to be – above all for us civil practitioners, plunging into a totally new area of work, where defendants’ and victims’ rights are at stake. I kept some of the best course materials and take them with me when I sit. More than once I have found the answer there to some problem which crops up.
“The best thing about being a Recorder is that you get to contribute to the system, but without embarking down a one-way street. You get to road-test yourself in a judging setting, to gain experience and find out whether judging may be for you and you for it.
“Allowing people to contribute sooner rather than later, younger rather than older, with a foot in both camps, bringing fresh eyes and conscientious brains to new disciplines – these are all great strengths of our system. Also it is good for those who feel they cannot (or cannot yet) offer to be full-time judges, to be able to offer actively to contribute as part-timers.
“To anyone thinking of applying to become a Recorder I’d say do it! Do it early; earlier than you think. Do it, if you feel you have something to offer. Do it, above all, if you feel the vocational tug.”
Michael Fordham's case study. He told us why he wanted to become a judge and his experience of the selection process.
Recorders may sit in both Crown and County Courts, but most start by sitting in the Crown Court. Their jurisdiction is broadly similar to that of a Circuit Judge, but they will generally handle less complex or serious matters coming before the court. Recorders are expected to sit for at least 15 days a year but not normally for more than 30 days a year. Recordership is often the first step on the judicial ladder to appointment to the circuit bench.
"For me, becoming a judge is more about vocation than ambition. It is a new way in which to contribute to the law. If you think a full-time judicial post might be for you, the fee-paid Recorder option is a great way to sit part-time to see if it is right for you and you for it. If you are contemplating what could some day be a turn down a big one-way street for your career, it is good if you can get out for a stroll to see what it is like down there.
“I went to a state grammar school in Lincolnshire, but got a big break to get into Oxford and, thanks to Gray's Inn scholarship money, was able to go to the Bar. Now after 20 years – four years of interlocutory banking, and the rest in judicial review and human rights – I have also become a Recorder and will start sitting in June.
“In terms of experience which I feel prepared me for the role, I've frequently found myself on steep learning curves and trying to look at other people's sectoral niches of law as an outsider. That helps with counteracting the fear of adjudicating on something new and unknown. Balancing a conscientious desire for thoroughness with the need to try and analyse papers at top speed is also an everyday preparation for this new role. The ideas in the back of your mind, that law is bigger than lawyers, and that the law has a heart as well as a head, also helps.
“The JAC selection process is extremely well-intentioned. It is borne out of ideas of fairness and transparency. It takes out the 'who you know'. I did feel I had to sell myself for a judicial job and found the process rigidly criterion-led. It nearly squeezed the vocational life out of me. I got rejected, twice, for Criminal Recorder, but what kept me going was the idea that I was applying to do a job in which I really felt I had something to offer.
“To prepare for the selection process, I bought lots of books on general practice, and did not get time to read any of them. But I made sure I had some clear time before the test and selection days. I also put in quite a lot of time doing the application form because the JAC want detailed illustration and the form needs careful thought.
“I feel future candidates should go for it and not give up if you think you have the skills. If you find a 'hard-sell' of yourself rather uncomfortable that is good. In my mind you are precisely what the system really needs.”