Interview with District Judge Rachel Watkin – Refugee Week (UK, 19-25 June 2023)


Can you introduce yourself and say a bit about your background?

DJ Rachel Watkin

I grew up in Eryri, in North Wales, and, having first obtained a law degree, I decided that working as a solicitor or barrister was likely to be extremely dull and, therefore, I spent the first three years of my career working as a police officer in Warrington. I joined Cheshire Police shortly after the Warrington bombings and was involved in high profile murder cases. Cheshire Police was definitely not dull.

However, after nearly three years in Warrington, I felt that I had the wrong balance in life; I didn’t feel mentally challenged and, rather oddly, longed to do a job where I had time to do the paperwork and not have to work shifts, so that I could go out with my friends at weekends. I decided to train to be a solicitor.

I subsequently spent 19 years working as a property solutions solicitor, resolving problems in relation to property matters. Having aspired to become a partner, after 10 years heading a team of property litigation lawyers and getting drawn into management issues, I was struggling to find time to focus on the legal work which I found more interesting than management. So, I transferred to the bar as a specialist Business and Property Court barrister. By this time, I also sat as a part time Business and Property Court Judge on the Northern Circuit.

What type of judge are you?

Having spent 10 years sitting as a Deputy District Judge on the Northern Circuit, doing mainly Business and Property Court work, I was appointed in November 2021 to the Wales Circuit as a District Judge.

Can you tell us about your journey into law, and how long it took for you to become a judge?

I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was a young teenager. Probably as a result of watching the American TV show, LA Law. Although, I now wonder whether I might have been a surveyor if there had been an American TV show about surveyors as I have always had a fascination with property – which led me to specialise in property disputes and then to my interest in sitting within the Business and Property Court.

I initially applied to be a fee paid judge in 2009 and was appointed as a Deputy District Judge in 2010, following a very long recruitment process. At the time of applying, the firm I worked for didn’t allow partners to take time out to sit, but that firm then went into administration in July 2010, the very same time that I was appointed. So, I was able to take up the appointment without having to challenge the policy.

After becoming involved with Refugee Kindness, I found that by continuing to work all hours as a barrister, it would have been impossible for me to also balance the charity work and family life. So, I applied for full time positions and was appointed to both the Civil Court in Wales and the Property Tribunal in England.

DJ Rachel Watkin

What is Refugee Week, and why is it important to celebrate it?

Celebratory weeks are intended to encourage all of us to focus on the positives and to, hopefully, dispel negativity through those celebrations. The community in North Wales is certainly richer as a result of the variety of people who live here and, to an extent, that is due to our refugees. We are very lucky to have them among us. Refugees and people seeking asylum have often been through challenging times and can find it hard to settle in new communities with no family, no friends, no local knowledge of the agencies that can help them or even of the geographic area. Refugee Week helps raise awareness and support and reminds us all of the importance of embracing diversity.

What is Refugee Kindness and what inspired you to set it up?

Refugee Kindness is a charity that I set up in 2020, in the gap between lockdowns, with the dual purposes of helping support local refugees and people seeking asylum at the same time as reducing household waste. I had no idea that it was going to be the success that it has been.

To be honest, I was inspired by simple frustration. I was de-cluttering my home and I wanted the items that I no longer needed to go to those who would really appreciate and need them.

How do you encourage everyone to engage with the message and values of Refugee Week?

At Refugee Kindness, we are unfortunately aware of negativity in our communities and our way of dealing with that is the approach of being open to everyone. So, we do what we do and ensure that we publicise that our events and celebrations are open to all who wish to join in, to simply support us and our beneficiaries.

Enabling locals within the North Wales area to donate their belongings to the families creates a feeling of sharing that lets us all feel part of the same community. We also organize events at which everyone, whether they were born and bred in Wales or have been resettled, is encouraged to attend, to support integration and friendships. During Refugee Week, we are taking part in an event at the local multi-cultural hub, where we will be encouraging our beneficiaries to display their artwork. We have some amazingly talented beneficiaries.

Container unit filled with donations

What has your charity achieved?

At the time, I had no idea how much difference our approach was going to make to local families. I had no idea how little was being provided to the families in the way of household items. They had very little to make their houses into homes and were spending lockdown with nothing to do, and no way of baking or cooking to help them make food go further. One of our beneficiary ladies told me how her young sons would play with the carrier bags that the food bank produce came in, as they had no other toys.

The charity now supports some 80 families; we have around 20 volunteers, from family support workers to delivery drivers, IT experts, and a sewing machine repair person. We have low overheads as we have no premises – we offer the items to the families via an online platform and the items are then taken to a container unit where they are placed in a box marked with the family name for onward delivery by our volunteers. All items are allocated in accordance with an Allocations Policy to ensure fairness between the families but, importantly, they also only get the items that they have chosen from looking at the photographs.

What are some of the rewards and challenges you have encountered in running Refugee Kindness?

Refugee Kindness has been an emotional roller coaster for me personally. I don’t think I have ever cried so much – both tears of joy and sadness. There has been laughter too, as well as Arabic dancing and tasting a variety of amazing foods – the families we support love to show their gratitude for our help and friendship.

The biggest rewards are in supporting people with the most and least significant issues in their lives. This includes helping with tribunal cases in circumstances where a beneficiary had not previously been able to give her full story due to feeling ashamed of the abuse that she had suffered. It is often very hard for women to talk about what they have endured. It is also as equally moving as it is sad to be contacted by a family when they are in real need – be it for health, legal or other reasons. It is such an honour to be allowed into the personal and important parts of their lives, but sad that they don’t have their real families here to support them.

Looking into the future, what are your aspirations for Refugee Kindness?

My absolute ideal would be for others to take up the idea and to set up regional Refugee Kindness organisations across the country. Imagine how amazing it would be if we could all support families across the UK and, at the same time, reduce waste. I would be very happy to support anyone who would be interested in setting up in their local area.