14 FEBRUARY 2017

lord-kerrIn February and March of each year the Supreme Court begins the process of recruiting seven young lawyers to work at close quarters with the Justices as their judicial assistants (JAs) for the court year (September to July). Lord Kerr has been a Supreme Court Justice since it opened in 2009 and is the justice responsible for JA recruitment. He sits on the interview panel where he is joined by another Justice and two senior staff from the UKSC management team. Jack Ballantyne, of the UKSC Blog team, sat down with him to find out more about the unique opportunity for aspiring young lawyers. This year’s deadline for applications to become a JA closes on 30 March 2017, applications can be submitted via the Supreme Court’s dedicated webpage, here.

Applying to become a JA

Lord Kerr noted that there had been “up to 300” applicants for the JA positions in recent years but insisted that he takes responsibility for reading each application. He described what he is looking for when identifying those that will be included on the shortlist of applicants invited to interview: “that indefinable complex of aptitude and abilities which are very difficult to predict… at this level, intellectual and analytical ability are prominent among the range of skills that we are looking for. 

Lord Kerr went on to illustrate that the Supreme Court must determine issues that have already been through “the filter of extremely clever and able members of the judiciary . . . Therefore, intellectual analysis is a premium and I’m looking for evidence of achievement in the academic field but I’m also looking for articulacy and fluency in the presentation of the application form. So, occasionally there are those who haven’t perhaps got a double first from Oxbridge, perhaps they got a 2:1 from a redbrick university but by the content of their application form, they commend themselves to me and ultimately to the panel.

Finally, given the unique role of the Supreme Court in hearing cases of public importance, Lord Kerr described additional requirements for JA applicants:  “The other thing that one is looking for is personal qualities. You need to see that this is an individual who possesses emotional as well as intellectual intelligence and I am extremely impressed by those applications which show that the applicant has a hinterland. For instance, they may be interested in music, they may be interested in sport, and that shows a rounded personality which is the ideal candidate. You know, someone who has got the intellectual power but also has an emotional intelligence and has a life outside the law.”  

Lord Kerr also noted that he would question applicants at interview on “trends in the recent jurisprudence of the court“. This would test the intellect and the advocacy skills required of all candidates whatever their background: “You’ve got to have the intellectual rigour . . . You’ve got to be nimble-witted, I suppose, and you’ve got to be possessed of improvisational skills; you’ve got to be able to argue your corner; you’ve got to be robust in the expression of your opinions . . . The Bar doesn’t have a monopoly on that range of skills. There are plenty of solicitors who are equally possessed of them.”  Lord Kerr was also keen to emphasise the history of Scottish and Irish lawyers as JAs as the Justices seek to recruit “as diverse a group as is possible with a range of experience“.

The day to day work of a JA

Lord Kerr went into some detail on the tasks that JAs are regularly given by the Justices. He noted that he makes a habit of talking to his JA before a case is heard “in order to get a feel for how his or her mind is working about some of the issues that seem important”. He also noted that he would also discuss a case as it progressed to offer the opportunity to his JA to suggest points for further consideration or “to bring to the forefront a perspective that is missing” that may prompt questions of Counsel from the Justices in the actual hearing.

Lord Kerr confirmed that one of the primary responsibilities of JAs is the preparation of bench memos: “The bench memos are the first point of contact for members of the public coming in. They look at the bench memo to see what a case is about and will have an idea of the issues that are likely to arise. They are also extremely important when it comes to permission to appeal because although we read all the papers that come in for the permission to appeal, the idea of the bench memo is to condense those issues and to give us a reference point to the various documents that we need to concentrate upon in deciding whether or not to give permission.

Lord Kerr described the process for applications for permission to appeal as one that the JAs most enjoy. These applications are dealt with informally by a panel of three Justices and JAs may observe the debate as to whether or not to give permission for the appeal to be heard: “That is based on our perception as to whether the case gives rise to a point of law and is of general public importance. The judicial assistant who has prepared the bench memo is called on to express a view as to whether or not they would have given permission and we have quite animated discussions with them. I think that they probably value that more than any other aspect of the work that they do.

The JA experience

Lord Kerr was clear about the unique opportunity afforded to aspiring lawyers in the role of a JA to see the law in action: “They are privy to discussions with justices about how the case has been presented, about which arguments have been more persuasive than others; the opportunity to observe advocacy at the highest level. At a more over-arching level, the experience of seeing the law develop and the shaping of the direction of travel of the law – it gives them a good insight into the philosophical underpinning of our decisions and of the way in which the law must be responsive to the changing needs and standards of values of society, which I think is an extremely important dimension for any aspiring lawyer.

Lord Kerr also remarked that previous JAs have made a return to the Supreme Court appearing as barristers themselves: “Many of our former JAs forge very successful careers and many of them have appeared before us within a very short time of leaving us. They’re there in front of us which I think is a very good thing, both for them and for us.”

As well as being an invaluable experience in the career of young lawyers, Lord Kerr underlined the fact that the work and influence of the JAs was also of great importance to the Supreme Court: “We’re getting a perspective on a problem from a young person which we might not necessarily have if we were left to our own resources“.

Life at the Supreme Court

Towards the end of the interview Lord Kerr provided a light-hearted insight into the atmosphere among the staff of the Supreme Court: “The wonderful thing about this institution is that it’s small. Everyone seems to get on extremely well together and we all seem to pull more or less in the same direction. But I think that the JAs who come here by and large form very good relationships, not only with the Justices but also with the other members of staff. We have got a very good extracurricular agenda in the form of quiz nights, the ‘Can’t Sing Choir’ and Football Fridays!” Lord Kerr also described a sense of community and a pretty tightly knit group” among the JAs whom he continues to meet for years after their time at the Supreme Court.