Bringing young people to the law
International Women’s Day (March 8th) was an appropriate date for the Diversity and Community Relations Judiciary, in partnership with The National Justice Museum and Young Citizens to host their first ever Question and Answer session for students from a wide variety of backgrounds who were interested in learning more about the realities of life as a judge and the role of the judiciary in England and Wales. The aim of the session was to ‘bring young people to the law… and the law to young people’.
The event was hosted in Court 4 at spectacular Royal Courts of Justice – this is the court of the Lord Chief Justice – Lord Burnett, Head of the Judiciary in England and Wales. Throughout its history this court room will have heard many landmark cases since it opened in 1882 but in more recent times it is likely that the recent (unsuccessful) appeal of the London’s black cabbies against Uber was heard here as well as the (successful) appeal of 3 fracking protestors’ “manifestly excessive” prison sentence.
Chairing the session was Lady Justice Hallett. As the first woman to act as Leader of the South Eastern Circuit and Chair of the Bar Council, she clearly demonstrated that, despite the prevailing stereotype of judges being ‘old white men’, the legal profession is rapidly changing. In fact, according to the 2018 Judicial Diversity statistics almost 50% of court judges under 50 are now female and, in the under 60 age bracket, female tribunal judges actually outnumber men. “You can’t plan what life will bring to you,” Lady Justice Hallett noted, whilst encouraging the students to “Take the opportunities that do come your way, have confidence in yourself and don’t ever let other’s set you back.”
Helping to reinforce this inspiring message were High Court Judge, Mrs Justice Cutts, HHJ Angela Morris (both of whom were the first in their families to go to university), Deputy District Senior Judge (Chief Magistrate) Tan Ikram (son of an immigrant biscuit factory worker) and Regional Employment Judge Fiona Monk (who, when she was appointed, was the youngest to have held that position). Together they presented an absorbing picture of the diverse range of roles available in the judiciary and demonstrated how anyone can have a career in the law if they possess the right qualities – of courtesy, patience, resilience, and the ability to really listen, communicate things clearly and to think through complex issues. These, as Lady Justice Hallett highlighted, are not only the skills necessary for a successful legal career, but for a successful career in any area of life.
Students from Carshalton High School for Girls, Coloma Convent Girls’ School, Copthall School, Burnt Mill Academy, St Mary’s and St John’s CE School, St Marylebone CE School and Walthamstow Academy were all in attendance and armed with questions for the panel. Questions ranged from ‘what is a typical day like for a judge’ (answer: there isn’t one!) to questions around sentencing young people involved in knife crime, the role of artificial intelligence in the law and the impact of technology on our legal systems. We heard about the separation of powers and how the law is made by Parliament and interpreted by judges. We also learnt that the European Court of Human Rights is unrelated to the European Parliament and so is unaffected by Brexit (unless we repeal the European Human Rights Act). In response to a question around BAME’s experiences of the legal system, Judge Tan Ikram told us about the rule of law, and how the law applies equally to everyone – a response that one young person described as being ‘textbook’.
Perhaps the most compelling responses were to a question asking what the hardest part of being a judge is. The judges spoke of being expected to know everything – even laws they hadn’t looked at in years. They also spoke of the challenges of working with damaged and vulnerable defendants and, how when they make a ‘merciful’ decision never really being able to know if it was the right call. Finally, Lady Justice Hallett spoke of the challenge of maintaining her professionalism during the inquest into the 7/7 London bombings and shared with the students her way of focusing her emotions – by digging her nails into the palm of her hand – on some days until she nearly drew blood.
The event revealed a side of the judiciary we don’t often get the chance to see – a diverse and compassionate profession keen to ensure equality for all. The event has been recorded and will be shared with the wider judiciary helping them to better understand how to reach out to the next generation of diverse young judges, legal professionals and jurors.
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