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District judge recruitment crisis ‘could take years to fix’

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

A government body that advises the lord chancellor on judicial salaries has highlighted a recruitment crisis that could affect the number of solicitors who rise to the senior benches.

In its latest report, published today, the Senior Salaries Review Body said vacancies remain at various levels, but recruitment challenges are ‘particularly pressing’ for the district bench.

Diversity statistics published this month show that non-barristers have a higher representation among the less senior judicial posts. While 5% of all judges at High Court level or above are non-barristers, they represent at least 58% of district and deputy district judges.

The SSRB said today that there were many factors behind the shortfall in recruiting district judges, including the depletion of the fee-paid deputy district judge feeder pool.

The report says: ‘There had been several years of little or no deputy district judge recruitment before 2018 and their number had sharply reduced. This is now being addressed by recurrent recruitment since 2018-19. In 2021, a further deputy district judge competition is underway, seeking to fill 150 vacancies.

‘It will, however, take a number of years to address the vacancies for district judges via the deputy district judge feeder pool, due to the requirement that district judges have prior judicial experience, usually obtained as a deputy district judge. In time successful recruitment of deputy district judges may be enough to address the vacancies.

‘However, as the SSRB observed last year, it is an open question whether deputy district judges will apply for salaried district judge posts in the same proportion as previously. Applications may be affected by the equalisation of pay between fee-paid and salaried judges, and the heavier burden placed on salaried judges (with less flexibility over sitting dates, the handling of more complex or onerous cases, and greater administrative responsibilities). We are monitoring this situation closely.’

The SSRB added that it continued to hear concerns at district bench level about poor working conditions, increased workloads and questions about the impact of pension reforms on take-home pay.

Today’s report focuses on strategic priorities, recruitment and retention after the government paused pay awards for the majority of the public sector, including the judiciary, in response to the pandemic.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)