Cloisters’ barrister Rachel Barrett, gives an insightful view about her life as judicial assistant at the Supreme Court.
I usually get into work at about 9 am, make a cup of tea and discuss the case being heard that day with the other judicial assistants. We test out our views on each other before venturing to put them to our respective justices.
At about 9.30 or 9.45 am I will pop in to see Lord Wilson or Lord Hodge, depending on who is sitting that day, to have a quick chat about the case. At first I felt anxious about piping up with my own opinions to a justice of the Supreme Court. However, both Lord Wilson and Lord Hodge are extremely kind and the discussions are so engaging that I soon forgot my nerves. When my ideas tally with their initial thoughts I do think “phew, I understood that correctly” – but by the nature of the cases heard here there is often no right answer and plenty of room for debate.
At 10.30 am I go into court to watch the hearing. The judicial assistants sit behind the justices, so we have an excellent view of the advocates. It has been particularly interesting to learn about what the judges are looking for in good advocacy; substance is much more important than style, although the really great advocates make it look effortless. My favourite days have been when members of Cloisters (my lovely colleagues from chambers) have been in court – I just about manage to refrain from waving at them from behind the bench!
Lunch is from 1 pm to 2 pm, and I usually buy soup from the canteen and eat together with the other judicial assistants in the staff room. They are all super-geeks, with a range of different backgrounds, areas of practice and points of view. We indulge in heated debates over the cases that are being heard, and political and moral questions arising from them. It’s a very supportive group; when I have a new legal research problem my first port of call is to ask the others where to start.
I go back into court from 2 pm to 4 pm. One of the best things about the judicial assistant role is the variety of fascinating legal issues that make up your day-to-day work. Questions considered by the Supreme Court this year have included: whether depriving a dual-national of British citizenship for terrorist offences resulted in him becoming stateless, in contravention of international law (Secretary for State of the Home Department v B2 (Case Preview); whether the Prince of Wales’ letters to government ministers should be disclosed to the media (R (Evans) v Her Majesty’s Attorney-General (Case Preview); and whether publication of CCTV images of a minor participating in a riot breached his Article 8 right to privacy (In the matter of an application by JR38 for Judicial Review (Northern Ireland) (Case Preview). I have also enjoyed learning about the different jurisdictions covered by the Privy Council. During my time here, the diverse caseload of this unique tribunal has varied from a high value international trust dispute to criminal appeals concerning the miscarriage of justice.
After court I work on a variety of tasks including legal and factual research for my justices, press summaries of judgments and bench memos. A bench memo is a précis of an application for permission to appeal, and all the judicial assistants write one a week. We tend to write the bench memos for cases in our own areas of practice but they can be on absolutely anything. This job definitely requires flexibility and a willingness to learn about new areas of law, fast!
I usually leave work at about 6.30 pm, although this varies; I will leave earlier if I have something on that evening, or stay later if there is anything I need to finish. I sometimes take papers home to read in preparation for the next day’s case. The workload is busy but manageable.
The insight we judicial assistants gain into the workings of the court is unique and very special. By the time a case reaches the Supreme Court the arguments are on points of law, and the facts of the case can seem quite far removed. Despite this, the judges reflect very carefully on the outcomes for the people involved as well as the need to ensure the proper development of the law. They do an incredibly difficult job, and work incredibly hard. (It’s much more fun being a judicial assistant – we see all the interesting bits without the weight of responsibility!)
If you are thinking of applying to participate in next year’s scheme, I really urge you to do so. I love this job and cannot recommend it highly enough.
For more information about being a judicial assistant, see this blog post here.