Lord Chief Justice, President, invited guests, members of the Association

 

It is, of course, 12 months since I rose to make my first speech as your chairman at an Annual Dinner.

 

On that occasion, I observed it is a great privilege and a pleasure to be chairman of the Family Law Bar Association.

 

Then, of course, I was only 2 months into my 2 year term, and I modestly volunteered that so far ‘it had all gone swimmingly’. What, I asked, could possibly go wrong…..?

 

Well, one year on, I can report that it is still a privilege and still a pleasure, and that I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year as your chairman. As to whether it has all gone swimmingly, others must decide; but I like to think that I have, at least, managed to keep my head above water. And in spite of everything, the Association is in good heart, or at the very least it is still here.

 

And as I embark upon my 2nd year as your chairman, I will try to resist the temptation simply to press the REPEAT button, although, rather like the Queen, the life and glittering social calendar of an FLBA chairman has a reassuring predictability about it.

 

In March I shall join our solicitor friends in Resolution at their annual conference in Birmingham; in May we shall gather together again at Cumberland Lodge for our own spring conference; in July I am pleased to report that we have reinstated the FLBA Garden Party in Middle Temple; and in November we shall pack our buckets and spades and our thermal vests to travel to Brighton for the FLBA National Conference.

 

But before all of that, we gather together for the Family Law Bar Association’s Annual Dinner. This is definitely my favourite.  One of the nicest things as chairman is to be able to welcome so many friends and colleagues to an event like this.  And so too our guests: it is a great pleasure to welcome you all.

 

I am particularly pleased that Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and Lady Thomas have been able to join us this year. This is, I think, the first time that the FLBA has entertained the Lord Chief Justice at an Annual Dinner, and I am extremely grateful to Lord Thomas for accepting my personal invitation to be our guest speaker, in what I know is an exceptionally busy time ahead of his retirement later this year.

 

I am also delighted to be able to welcome Mr Justice Francis to his first Annual Dinner as a judge. In October I was honoured, on your behalf, to welcome Sir Nicholas upon his appointment as one of our excellent new Family Division Judges. However, it has since become apparent to me that he remained ignorant of the fact that in addition to the other benefits which were then bestowed upon him – like a knighthood – one of the most prized is a guaranteed lifetime’s invitation to the FLBA dinner as one of our guests.

 

At a difficult time for judicial recruitment, this ought not to be overlooked.

 

In addition to our current President, Sir James Munby, I am also delighted to welcome back former Presidents, Baroness Butler-Sloss and Sir Mark Potter, and I send our very best wishes to Sir Stephen and Lady Brown, all of whom  have been excellent friends of the Family Law Bar Association, and whose continued support we value enormously.

 

Inevitably, that brings me to Sir Nicholas Wall.

 

The exceptionally unhappy circumstances leading to Sir Nicholas’ death will probably be known to you all, and I do not propose to dwell upon them. However, I do want to pay tribute to the bravery and sincerity of Sir Nicholas’s widow, Margaret, and of his children, for acknowledging so publicly the desperately sad and tragic consequences that dementia can have within a family.
Sir Nicholas was called to the Bar in 1969, appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1988, a recorder in 1990 and then a Judge of the High Court in April 1993. After a spell at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and then in the Administrative Court, he was promoted to the Court of Appeal in January 2004.

 

In April 2010 Sir Nicholas was appointed President of the Family Division. His appointment was widely welcomed within the profession given his well-deserved reputation as a genuinely compassionate judge who thought and cared deeply about the outcome of his cases.

 

Sadly, Sir Nicholas was obliged to retire prematurely due to ill-health in December 2012. Unhappily was never well enough after his retirement to join us at this Dinner, although I am told that he was buoyed up by the knowledge that we had continued to invite him to do so as our guest every year.

 

In a generous and richly well-deserved valedictory published in Family Affairs to coincide with Sir Nicholas’ retirement in 2012, my predecessor as chairman, Nicholas Cusworth QC, wrote as follows:

 

Sir Nicholas Wall has been one of the most distinguished family lawyers of his generation. He was equally at home with cases involving money and children at the bar, a very rare commodity. As a judge, he was brave in asserting what he saw as the right way, especially where the interests of children were concerned. He was trusted to stand up for the fair administration of family justice against the repeated attempts at cost cutting by successive governments.

 

And as the President has previously said elsewhere, Sir Nicholas also spoke with passion and in plain language about the importance of family life, the good practice of family law, and the proper administration and resourcing of family justice. He was also appropriately outspoken about the plight of children caught up in parental conflict, including in particular the impact of domestic abuse on children and on family life.

 

In many ways, Sir Nicholas was ahead of his times: he was a champion of rights for unmarried couples, the introduction of no fault divorce and supported increased transparency in the family courts. These are all ambitions yet to be fully realised, but Sir Nicholas will be remembered fondly, and with very great respect, as a reforming President who set us on the road to a modern era. It is a genuine tragedy that his time as President was cut so desperately short.

 

I send our sincere condolences and deep sympathy to Lady Wall and to Sir Nicholas’ family at this very sad time.

 

And with those few sombre reflections, I return to other matters.

 

In typical Julie Andrews style, one of my other ‘favourite things’ as your chairman is to receive news that members of the FLBA have been successful in their applications for silk.

 

Last year I congratulated six members of the Association upon their appointment as Queens Counsel. This year there were sixteen successful applications (including several applicants who practice in other fields in addition to family law).

 

The full list is as follows: David Brooke, Dakis Hagen, Penelope Howe, Marie Louise Kinsler, Stefano Nuvoloni, Deok Joo Rhee, Jason Sugarman, Al Thorpe, Andrew Wheeler, and those who are present this evening: Alexis Campbell, Ed Devereux, Geoff Kingscote, Anna McKenna, Brent Molyneux, Sam Momtaz and finally Mark Twomey.

 

I offer them all our warmest congratulations and wish them very good luck as they embark upon a new and exciting chapter in their professional lives.

 

In my last ‘urbi et orbi’ FLBMail I promised to write to them all personally, and so I shall. With my apologies, and in typically ‘keeping my head above water’ mode, that is my first task for this weekend (…..or possibly the next).

 

And just as our new family silks embark upon a new and exciting chapter in their professional lives, so too does the family justice system.

 

I speak, of course, of the proposed Online Family Court.

 

Last year, at this dinner, you will recall that the President outlined proposals in Lord Justice Briggs’ report to revolutionise the way in which court users – or ‘stakeholders’ as we must now call them – interact or ‘pathway’ through the family justice system.  I wrote about this in my column in the spring edition of Family Affairs last year under the headline:

 

Hello, I’m Cindy. I’m your on-line court appointed mediator.

 

which amused me, but was actually a reference to the President’s speech at the Cardiff National Conference in November 2015. At last year’s dinner I assured the President that the FLBA would respond positively and engage constructively with the changes which it was proposed to bring about to ensure that the family justice system functions in a more efficient and effective way.

 

Well, the wheels of reform turn relatively slowly, but the process has begun, and I am pleased to report that the FLBA is engaging positively and constructively both at Committee level, and via the Bar Council, directly with the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service to ensure that the first phase of the family justice system’s modernisation – its digitisation – is fit for purpose and meets the needs of both litigants and legal representatives alike.

 

Of course, there is much still to be done, and a fully interactive Online Family Court as it has been portrayed to us is still some years off. But it is coming.

 

About a fortnight ago, I was asked to take part in a debate organised by Resolution which posed the following motion: ‘This House believes that an Online Family Court is a good thing’.  The team arguing in favour of the motion was selected from members of the young Bar and YRes – which styles itself as ‘the next generation’.  Those of use asked to speak against the motion were, perhaps unkindly, selected from those of slightly more mature years, indeed I appeared to have been cast – I hesitate to say, typecast – in the role of chief Luddite.

 

The debate was advertised as being chaired – neutrally I had assumed – by one Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division.

 

As it happened, and for reasons entirely beyond his control, the President arrived late, after the debate had already begun. And so after both sides had set out our best points – which, on our side, were, shall we say, more ‘on instructions’ than born of genuine conviction – it was suggested that perhaps the President might wish to say a few words.

 

Well, I should have smelt a rat. Twenty, or perhaps thirty minutes later, we on the side of the refuseniks were left reeling. It was as though the referee had donned the shirt of the opposing team during extra time and come on to score the winning try.

 

And of course we lost. And rightly so.

 

The family justice system cannot continue in its current guise, and we must seize upon this once in a generation opportunity to modernise and transform the family justice system into something fit for the 21st century. This is a process upon which Sir Nicholas Wall embarked in 2010. That the process will not be complete before our current President retires in 2018 is regrettable. But, for that reason, if nothing else, we must all commit – unreservedly and enthusiastically – to seeing the process through, so that in 2022, or perhaps even beyond, my successor as chairman will be able to reflect ruefully upon how it was that we were prepared to continue to operate in such an antediluvian fashion for quite so long.

 

But these are, of course, generally uncertain times. Quite apart from pressing on with a major overhaul of the justice system, Government certainly has its hands full with the consequences of Brexit. The Family Law Bar Association continues to engage with the Ministry of Justice at a high level in relation to the likely and arguably undesirable consequences for family law of the decision to leave the EU.

 

There is a huge amount to discuss, and being entirely realistic we may have to acknowledge that what might otherwise be considered a desirable outcome to any negotiations from the family lawyer’s perspective, may well be swept up – or even possibly subsumed – by broader political considerations. But we will continue to make our case, and must not hesitate to speak out if and when we believe that legitimate concerns are being ignored.

 

But enough of that.

 

Before I invite the President to say a few words, I would thank our excellent administrator Khadija Khan and also Ian Bugg (our Secretary) for all their hard work and for making this dinner such an excellent occasion.

 

And my thanks also to Frances Judd QC (our tremendous Vice Chairman) and to James Roberts (our commendably parsimonious Treasurer) for all their hard work and support over the past year.

 

Although this is no yet time for valedictories, I am well aware that in 10 months’ time I shall retire gracefully to the back benches after 10 years as an executive officer of the Family Law Bar Association.

 

One of the hidden benefits of being in charge of the FLBA, as both Lord Thomas and the President will know, is that you don’t have to worry too much about the seating plan at events like this, because you have a pretty good idea of where you will be sitting. For me, all that will soon change. And for next year I ask only this: I’d like a nice seat, preferably with some reasonable company if that can be arranged, and not too near the kitchens.

 

But in the meantime, you’re stuck with me for a little bit longer.

 

I look forward to sending you my FLBMails (which I do hope you will read), and to welcoming all of you to our various events over the coming year.

 

Thank you for your kind attention.