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Orla O’Hagan describes her legal career encompassing working as a solicitor, Deputy District Judge, District Judge and now a private FDR Judge.
On leaving University in 1985, a legal career had never occurred to me, certainly not being a Solicitor, less still a Judge. I come from a large, Irish family of modest means and received an unimpressive education at a local comprehensive. I did go to university but graduated during a recession, so, armed with my Politics degree, I was then an over-qualified toilet cleaner in a nightclub, in my hometown in Sussex. I became a CAB Volunteer, figuring I could support my community and learn valuable skills whilst searching for a career. I found it really rewarding and other volunteering followed.
A solicitor’s wife, and fellow volunteer, told me her husband was looking for an office junior. Getting that job was pivotal, I loved the whole environment and within months, the firm suggested I train as a solicitor. I ended up spending my entire private practice career with them. Whilst working full-time, I completed the Common Professional Exam for non-law graduates, working by day and studying at night. My training period after that (called Articles at that time) was followed by a year at the College of Law for Solicitors’ Finals. I qualified in 1991 with first-class honours, specialised in family work and later, qualified as a Mediator as well.
My caseload (private and publicly funded) covered divorce and separation, cohabitation, child arrangements, financial remedy and domestic abuse. In mediation I covered the same issues. It was all demanding and fulfilling work.
Joining the judiciary
It wasn’t long before I dreamed of becoming a Judge, which I kept to myself for years, imposter syndrome reigning strong, but I was appointed as a Deputy District Judge (DDJ) in 2010 and in February 2020 as a District Judge (DJ). There is no extra training when appointed as a DJ but the transition is huge. At least I found it so and can only speak for myself.
A judicial appointment involves a very steep learning curve. Being a judge is a very different role to that of a solicitor and the adjustment from adviser to decision-maker is not easy. Also, if you have specialised in one practice area as most of us have, the county court jurisdiction (civil and family) is so wide, that there will always be unfamiliar topics, which can feel scary and uncomfortable at first, as you are tasked with making sometimes difficult or complex decisions and usually several of them each day. From DDJ to DJ, you hit the ground running again, with additional responsibility and workload.
A DDJ sits in different courts part-time, conducts hearings and undertakes box-work (correspondence, paper orders etc) but can otherwise leave the job behind when the sitting day is over.
DJs on the other hand are permanent office holders, have a home court and in addition to hearings and box-work, have administration and management, which also increased exponentially after Covid. There are operational staff and managers, but you still need to be involved in how your court is running and internal issues will come to you as it’s your court. You need to invest time in your staff so the court runs smoothly and also support visiting DDJs. These responsibilities may be shared depending on the size of court.
For a DJ, there are sometimes weightier cases, which is appealing; there is also job security and continuity; more involvement with the work and the court; learning quickly on a bigger scale; earlier knowledge of hearing lists, also some say in listing and allocation; and more opportunity to read files and prepare for hearings in advance. I felt more integrated in court life and found real camaraderie on the district bench. Having regular contact with other DJs and Circuit Judges provided a welcome support network too. DDJ life can feel more isolated, even though one has a mentor and I always found other judges keen to help.
Covid arrived soon after my DJ appointment, so it is difficult to know how things would have panned out in different circumstances. There was already enormous pressure on the court system pre-Covid though and I had heard of disaffected judges even then, so I was prepared for DJ life to be tough. I was not however prepared for Covid too.
Leaving a lifetime appointment
Although serving in the Judiciary for ten years (and very proud to do so) I was a new DJ in a mainly one-DJ court and still finding my feet, when the pandemic arrived, at which point life changed beyond recognition.
For me, it started with my court closing its doors (not just to court-users but to judges and staff too for a time) and went downhill from there. It is not difficult to picture the unprecedented disruption that Covid unleashed. Courts converted to remote hearings overnight with all the challenges they bring, we had new IT and hearing platforms, further training, new protocols legislation and rules, remote administration, additional case-management and triaging especially with mass adjournments in the early days, court offices deluged with emails, plus re-location and re-organisation of courts. This was on top of the normal demands of judicial life and inevitably it added even more hours, responsibilities and stress. Increasingly, I felt unable to do my job as well as I wanted to when faced with these additional obstacles and when it became clear that Covid was also going to have lasting impact at work and in turn on my wellbeing, eventually I decided to leave. This is just my experience and I don’t speak for others.
Leaving judicial office felt devastating initially, not least because I had been in law for over 30 years and here I was giving up a lifetime appointment. However, I think we all see life differently post-Covid and have found ourselves making choices and decisions we simply did not expect.
One of the issues in court is lack of time. The workload is huge, the jurisdiction wide and the job involves analysing large volumes of complex information quickly, then making instant, sound decisions under immense time pressures. Having specialised in family law and been a private (child) law and financial remedy Judge, this was work I remained interested in and I knew former or part-time Judges could be Private FDR Judges. Here, there is the luxury of more time, usually a day for each case. We cannot return to practice after salaried office, give legal advice for remuneration or be advocates again, but Private FDRs involve none of those things, whilst making use of judicial knowledge, skills and experience.
For those not in family law, FDRs are Financial Dispute Resolution hearings on divorce. The Judge does not hear evidence or make determinations but hears submissions, considers the offers exchanged between the parties and gives a view of a reasonable and likely outcome should the case proceed to trial, with the focus being on settlement. They are confidential so parties can negotiate freely, they may not agree with the Judge’s view and are not bound by it, but it is a valuable part of the negotiation process. The FDR Judge obviously does not deal with the case thereafter if it does not settle. Private FDRs take place in the same way (except they can be conducted by any suitably qualified person, usually a former or part-time Judge, Solicitor or Counsel) and are welcomed by the Judiciary. In court, each FDR is among a busy list of other cases, there is limited time before the Judge and they may be adjourned or delayed, particularly post Covid. Privately, that won’t happen and whilst there is a fee, it is cost effective because every element is conducive to settlement.
Having actually conducted such cases in court and decided them at trial, this was a natural development, and I was convinced I could do FDRs far more effectively on a private basis. The idea took hold and in March, I launched a Private FDR business.
Lessons I learned along the way
It really is true that with hard work and determination anything is possible whatever your background; this pandemic has harmed us all somehow, but it is okay for life to take a different path; above all, trust your instincts. I struggled to accept the ending of my judicial career, but I know I have always given my best efforts professionally and my integrity remains firmly intact. I look ahead with an open mind and a new sense of freedom.
The Private FDR Service. www.privatefdrs.co.uk