HHJ Brandon currently sits as a Circuit Judge on the Northern Circuit based at Liverpool Crown Court and has done so since 1 April 2019. HHJ Brandon began her schooling at a comprehensive school in the North of England before studying Government and Law at the University of Manchester. After enrolling onto the Bar Vocational Course (now the BPTC), HHJ Brandon was able to secure a pupillage at 9 St John Street Chambers in Manchester where she practiced Criminal Law for 15 years prior to being appointed as a Recorder in 2016.
When you were first beginning on the path to a legal career, how well did you feel prepared and supported to undertake a role within the legal profession?
I had no intention of wanting to be a lawyer. It was just not a career open to people like me and no one had ever talked to me about it at school. The careers advice I got at school was to be a librarian. I made the decision to do an A-Level in Law purely because a friend of my Dad’s was the teacher and I thought it would be easier because of that. I really enjoyed it, but I still didn’t think it was an option for me.
The only thing I knew about the law was the mock trial competition run by the Citizenship Foundation that my English teacher made me take part in. This had given me a taste for advocacy, public speaking, and I suppose the law. That was all I knew about the legal profession; I didn’t know any lawyers. It meant that people from schools like mine got exposed to the Courts in a good way. A local lawyer who was supposed to help with the competition never came into our school. The local legal profession at the time didn’t want to spend that time with us. Now I’m very fortunate and very lucky so it is important if I can do things like that because I don’t want anyone else to feel that they didn’t matter or that they were different. I was woefully underprepared for what I then set out to do.
Did you feel restricted on the opportunities you had when looking to progress academically compared to people perhaps from more socially advantaged backgrounds?
I knew I wanted to go to university, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it as I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. They had just about got rid of grants so there was no funding available. It was my brilliant law teacher who told me to do it and discussed how it was possible. She wanted me to apply for Oxford or Cambridge, but this was a no-no for two reasons. Firstly, I knew that I couldn’t afford to live away from home but secondly, I just didn’t think I would fit in.
In the end I applied to Manchester University on the basis I would do a joint honours degree as I thought I was wasting my time doing a pure law degree. I never thought I could be a lawyer so I wanted to do something that would give me wider options. I think I missed out on what help was available because I had to commute every day and work three jobs to afford my fees and my books, so I couldn’t stay after lectures for extra courses or speakers. I think that people who can’t be at the university all the time might be missing out on some things.
Do you feel there were any significant barriers to you obtaining a role as a barrister or indeed progressing within your legal career once at the Bar?
The funding was a massive, massive barrier for me as I had no money and even working, I still managed to drum up a debt from university. I was frightened as I has no way of paying that off. I took out the minimum loan to pay the Bar fees and I started the Bar course sick with worry as I now had two debts and no idea how I was ever going to pay it off. I was someone with this amount of debt whose Dad had to come and fill my car up with petrol when it had run out in a Salford car park because my car didn’t have a working petrol gauge. Getting over this hurdle was a really big deal and caused me many sleepless nights trying to work out how I would deal with that.
When I went for pupillage interviews there were some chambers who were not interested in somebody like me or I did not fit into their chambers. Sometimes people were hired who fit the mould of that chambers as they looked and sounded like everyone else. One barrister I was shadowing on a mini-pupillage asked me: “Are you seriously thinking about this job?” and when I replied that I was, she said either: “No one will understand your accent” or “People with your accent aren’t barristers”. This just made me really angry and I thought: ‘I’m going to show you that you’re wrong’. I just wanted to prove that I could do it and people like me could do it.
I feel that I have had to work harder than someone who was privately educated or had family in the law, so they knew where to ask and where to turn. Whose family could ask their barrister mate: ‘Would you mind taking my son/daughter for a mini-pupillage?’ or their judge mate whether they could come and watch what they do.
We are well aware, sadly, of the stereotypes that hinder some demographics in relation to gender, race, disability etc. Do you feel that those from a lower socio-economic background are subjected to similar issues?
Socio-economic background is a different problem to the other discrimination issues that need addressing but it is still a massive problem. The other problems are perhaps easier to see than this one, as there is a level of embarrassment attached to it. I didn’t want people to know I was poor and couldn’t afford it because I was proud. When I was applying for help funding the Bar Course, I went to the Inns of Court who give grants to students based on different criteria. I thought I would be a shoe in because I had nothing so of course they would want to help me. They asked questions during my interview about what job my parents did and how near I lived to the Trough of Bowland (a nice area with fancy hotels and restaurants). That was all they seemed to be bothered about and they didn’t seem interested in me at all or any potential that I might have. Coming out of the interview I was broken. No matter what I did or how clever I was, all anyone cared about was how I spoke and my background. My Dad had come with me and he said “You prove them wrong kid” and I thought: ‘I will’.
When doing the Bar Course, once a month we had an advocacy masterclass with a local barrister. Somebody from the chambers I eventually went to came in and saw me doing some advocacy and went back to the chambers and said if she applies, interview her. This was the first time that somebody had really looked at me for what I could do as an advocate and not my background. He wasn’t interested in any of that. He had just heard me do some advocacy and thought I knew what I was doing. That’s all anyone should want. You have to give people that chance. If you can’t do the job that’s different but if you’re limiting them and ruling them out before you’ve even given them a chance that’s just not right.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds aspiring to undertake a career in the legal profession today?
If you start from where I started, which is that you don’t know any lawyers, you look at it on TV and they’re all posh and driving fancy cars and you think: “That isn’t a career for me”. If you’re going to a school where nobody can give you any information on it then you are going to be limited. There will be friction between those sorts of students and those going to private school because private schooling provides the facilities to tell you how to dress for an interview and give you help with your language and speech. There are going to be people who always have that advantage compared to people like me from a comprehensive background.
Taking time out during the holidays to go to Manchester for experience was a big deal because I had to work to pay for university. Something we need to be aware of when we are encouraging people from schools like mine or backgrounds like mine is that getting a suit for work experience or to wear for events on the LPC or Bar Course and getting the money to come into a city to do that experience is a big deal and is out of the reach of some people.
Sometimes it is the limits you put on yourself which also relates to the issue of funding. I’d watch my Dad struggling to make ends meet and I just assumed it would be the same for me. It relates to the environment you’ve grown up in. You would never borrow money if you were from my background because you couldn’t pay it back and didn’t want to get into more trouble. If you have had to live worrying about how you are going to get your shopping that week and how you will feed your family, then taking on a £15,000 debt to pay for a 12 month course is beyond people.
Have you ever found your background to be an advantage to you in the legal profession rather than a hindrance?
Once I got through into chambers it definitely worked to my advantage being local, knowing the area and sounding like the people I was dealing with. The people who think it’s a problem are missing a trick. People felt they could talk to me and I wasn’t talking down to them. It reassures people when they hear a regional voice. Especially when people come to Court, they think it is like it is going to be on TV. They expect everyone to be very posh and talk down to them, so when you sit down next to them and they hear your voice you can see people sometimes relax.
I had one Defendant who I was instructed to defend that had a habit of sacking his barristers. I was expecting trouble but afterwards he told the solicitor “I don’t want those posh lads again I want her for everything”. He understood what I was saying to him and I spoke to him in terms he could understand, and he responded to that. He felt people talked down to him, especially in the legal profession and he opened up to me. This was an advantage as I got other work from that firm.
In your opinion has the situation for lawyers coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds improved or have more opportunities been created over your tenure in the Law?
The Citizenship Foundation is even better now and the professionals getting involved in it genuinely want to help and assist the students. I think a really big assistance that wasn’t previously available has been things like social media with some very senior lawyers on Twitter trying to open the profession up. Barristers, like my Pupil Master Jamie Hamilton, have run schemes to provide opportunities and training to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance.
At Liverpool Crown Court we are going to run a mentoring scheme and have a student from a local comprehensive school come and spend time with us. We will make sure they have the equipment, the suit, and the bus fare they need to get here. We will send them out with CPS practitioners, defence solicitors and barristers to try give them an inside view of what goes on in the legal profession in the hope that they can then say “Maybe this is a career I could go for”.
When you look at the judiciary, things are definitely changing. Most of the judges I was appearing in front of when I was a young Barrister were privately educated white men. The appointment of Judges has now changed as there is an independent process. The Judicial Appointments Commission is fair and far removed from any potential ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ input. There are clear assessment criteria. Those being appointed include more women and candidates who are Black, Asian and minority ethnic. Younger judges are also being appointed. However, because of the time and experience it takes for lawyers to feel able to make applications, they may have been in the legal profession for many decades before they make an application to become a Judge. So those young Barristers and Solicitors at the start of their careers may not think about becoming a Judge for many years. There is assistance available through the JAC to prepare for applications and interviews and so I expect to continue to see Judges being appointed who more accurately reflect the society they serve.
I am hoping that some of the hurdles have gone and I believe that the Inns are helping more people. I do think it has changed and I am seeing more people coming through as pupils from different backgrounds compared to the ‘traditional background’ and hearing more students saying they will give it a go. There are opportunities but there still aren’t enough, and we need more.
What more should we be doing as legal professionals and institutions more widely to encourage social mobility within the legal profession for the next generation of lawyers?
More needs to be done to give younger people the idea they can be looking towards a career in law. I worry that for some students at that young age in poor areas in the North their worlds are very small. It doesn’t enter their head because they don’t know anything about it unless they know about somebody being in trouble with the police.
Support needs to be put in place when decisions are being made, the funding sorted out and once in the job there needs to be a professional mentoring or development scheme. There are different hurdles at different stages but if we don’t sort out the socio-economic problem you are limiting or ruling out a whole group of people. The profession then isn’t representing the people it serves.
It needs more people in my job and other legal jobs to say: I’m going to give more of my time to be involved in organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation whilst getting out there and speaking to people.
People from my kind of background do put limits on themselves because everything has been a struggle, everything is hard. Having to deal with the knockbacks and the hardship and having to fight for everything. Fight to have the money to do it. Fight to change people’s views and attitudes. Every stage has been a battle. I have exceeded my expectations. I do sit here on most days and think: I can’t believe I’m here, how has that happened? That is why it is so important that we do tell people: “You can do this”.