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Olufemi Oluleye became a Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber (Social Security and Child Support) in July 2011 and sits in the South East. She is a former disability member of the tribunal and is a solicitor, currently working as the chief executive of a Citizens Advice Bureau and previously as a commercial lawyer in Nigeria.
The First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber (Social Security and Child Support) is an independent tribunal dealing with appeals against decisions made by the Department for Work and Pensions as well as other government departments and local authorities. The main types of appeal deal with decisions about Income Support, Jobseeker's Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Employment Support Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Attendance Allowance and retirement pensions.
"To be honest, I did not see myself becoming a judge in Britain – I felt it would have been easier in Nigeria. You need to be bold, but now the system is on merit it is obvious you should go for it. In the days of the 'nod and a wink' to get judicial roles I think I would have been staying on full-time at the Citizens Advice Bureau.
"It is good that you get a judicial role on merit and this requires taking it seriously. Preparation is the key to success. You cannot brush over not having the right experience. If you get through the test, you still need excellent examples for the interview and that's what my background gave me.
"After qualifying as a barrister and a solicitor in Nigeria and specialising in maritime law for 15 years, I moved to England and did a conversion course to practise as a solicitor here. It was difficult to get a role, so I started to volunteer full time at a law centre for six months and stumbled into focusing on social welfare law for the past nine years. I became a senior solicitor at a law centre and later moved to become a solicitor, manager and then chief executive of a citizens advice bureau.
"I started planning my move to become a judge three years ago and found out about the roles through the JAC's Judging Your Future email newsletter – it's a very good tool.
"Shadowing a District Judge for three days came next – he really encouraged me and got me involved in his cases. A Law Society/JAC candidate seminar gave me some more background knowledge and then I attempted the selection process for a Deputy District Judge (Magistrates' Court) position. I did not pass the qualifying test, but it gave me valuable experience of the selection process and a realisation of the preparation required. At the test I met people who said it was their fourth, fifth or sixth attempt and I saw they were not giving up.
"As my job focussed on social welfare law, I decided to do some more shadowing, this time in the Social Entitlement Chamber. Again, I really enjoyed it, and thought 'I still want a judicial role and I can do this'. Then the opportunity came up to be a disability panel member in the chamber. I decided to go for it to build up my confidence, experience and knowledge. I was successful and six months into this role, the selection process started for fee-paid judges in the tribunal. I heard a rumour that if you are from a black or minority ethnic background (BME) you have to take a test several times to pass, but I am proof that this is not true and I tell as many people as I can.
"When I started sitting I was shocked about how few BME people have judicial roles and have mixed feelings about this. At first some people did not expect me to be on the judging panel and instead thought I was the appellant or at most a 'rep'. Most people coming before the courts and tribunals are BME, but the judicial bench is not representative.
"More lawyers from BME backgrounds should go for judicial roles when they are ready. You should apply to become a judge because you like the role, not because it is a job, and ask yourself if it really is for you. And because you like it, take it seriously and be prepared. Take up the opportunity of shadowing. The judges I met were very positive and enjoy what they do. You can see it is not just a job for them, it is a passion."