Stephen Nichols is a District Judge (Civil) appointed to the South Western Circuit. He was previously a Deputy District Judge while working in private practice. He began his career as a CILEx Fellow before becoming a solicitor.

Judicial appointment. What happened next?

Stephen updates us on how he's getting on in his role.

“It has been 18 months since I was appointed. As in any busy occupation, the time has seemed to pass by quickly.  

“I have been exposed to nearly all areas of law. As a solicitor, one generally specialises. I was no different. It has been a very steep learning curve and there is something new to be learned every day.

“There is great satisfaction in assisting people to resolve their disputes, which is a large part of the work, particularly in family law.  

“I have found added confidence, having been in post for more than a year. The camaraderie in the District Bench is second to none. The work is interesting and, most importantly from a judge’s point of view, enjoyable.”

Stephen Nichols case study. We first spoke to him just after his appointment as District Judge. We asked about his career path and how he used his prior experience of the selection process second time round.

“When I began my career as a CILEx Fellow I didn't for one moment think I might one day become a District Judge. When working as a solicitor, I applied to become a Deputy District Judge in order to find out more about the process and was surprised and delighted to be successful. I sat initially once a week. It was possible to do this because I was the owner of my own firm and I had very good quality staff that I could rely on working for me.   

“When I moved to a new firm I reduced the sitting frequency to once a month. There is a tension between a busy practice and sitting as a judge but my firm welcomed the judicial point of view which I was able to bring in. As a result of this extra dimension the work my department prepared focussed on what I considered a judge is expecting to see. To be fair, as a busy practitioner you do have to put yourself out and make time to cover everything. But that is all part of being ambitious.   “When I was appointed a deputy judge in 2001 the application process was very different – it was tough but now the JAC has refined the process to a point where in my view it is absolutely fit for purpose. The focus now is on looking for specific qualities in candidates who are also expected to be able to demonstrate appropriate abilities and relevant experience.

“This was not my first application for a full-time appointment. I learned from previous experience and applied this cumulative knowledge together with the helpful interview feedback given by the JAC. What is needed, in both the application form and at the interview, are specific examples of the particular qualities and abilities required for the post, so my approach was to concentrate on getting that right. If you generalise you are not giving any real indication of how good you are at what you are applying for.

“I was glad to be able to do the qualifying test online. I took the test from the comfort of my own office early in the morning. There is a strict time limit and you have to work swiftly. All aspects of civil law and procedure are covered.

“The JAC front of house staff were especially helpful on the selection day. They were careful to explain very clearly what would happen. My experience was that, at interview, one's knowledge of law was presumed to a great extent. My advice to other candidates would be to concentrate more on what might be asked by the lay panel member. They look at a really diverse selection of areas and here I drew upon my experience as an advisor at the Citizen's Advice Bureau where I've met and mixed with a diverse range of cultures.

“The interview also involved some situational questioning which really added an element of realism. It focuses the mind upon what you would be doing day to day as a District Judge. The answers that you provide also give the panel food for thought for further questioning.

“I would certainly recommend this career path to any CILEx Fellow. I found that taking this route gave me a very good practical grounding. I was able to study and gain work experience at the same time. There is a real advantage to doing it this way, and of course, today CILEx Fellows can apply for a number of judicial roles in courts and tribunals.”

This case study also features in the JAC Annual Report 2013-14.