This is my first visit to your annual conference with an opportunity to say a few words to a gathering which includes most of the civil and family district judges in England and Wales. I know many of you, and in my travels, have managed to meet many more. By the end of the summer I will have reached most parts of the country and that will provide further opportunities to hear what you think and explore your concerns. I am grateful for the frank discussions I had over the last few months with many district judges. Those discussions have exposed common themes of what is wrong with our system, causing understandable and justified concerns; but also the privilege that most of us feel in being judges, providing a public service and taking great professional and personal enjoyment in what we do.
District judges are the backbone of our civil and family justice systems. You do an important and difficult job superbly. The backbone of my practice at the bar was common law civil work. There were few county courts that I didn’t visit and before whose district judges I did not appear, often hurtling between two far flung courts to do one case in the morning and one in the afternoon. That was before the advent of telephone hearings. And as a presiding judge I came to understand and value the work of the district bench including observing hearings to get a real sense of the nature of the workload and, sitting in the county court hearing appeals from district judges. Watching district judges in action made me appreciate that whilst you are lawyers and judges, you also provide care and support, almost social work, to the vulnerable who disproportionately people your courts. And hearing appeals was an eye opener because it highlighted the enormous range of difficult work you are expected to do in busy lists, covering a wide range of legal subject matter, increasingly without much help. I have often observed that in some ways your job is more difficult than that of the so-called senior judiciary, and I mean it.