Saturday, August 02, 2014

Leaving PWW

Leaving one's  workplace after 42 years must be difficult for anyone but the difficulty is substantially ameliorated by departing for another even older great  firm in London's Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Lawyers tend to be self centred especially litigation lawyers  where often the name of the game is proving to the judge jury and the other side how right one is and how wrong one's protagonists are.

Anyway here edited to protect the innocent are extracts from my farewell speech:

Some 42 years ago when searching for what were then called “Articled Clerk” vacancies I received two letters – you should bear in mind that email had hardly been invented at that time.  One was from Brendan Garry who was then a Partner at Witham Weld and the other was from Farrer & Co who were the solicitors to HM The Queen.  Upon being interviewed here by Brendan I told him of the other interview with Farrer & Co being arranged.  Shortly afterwards, he telephoned me with an offer to join Witham Weld as a Articled Clerk provided that I accepted the offer within two hours.  Obviously, that gave no time for the interview with Farrer & Co and the rest is history.

In the 1970s Articled Clerks or Trainee Solicitors, as they are now called, were not usually given seats in separate departments but had simply to undertake whatever was thrown at them.  One of my earliest duties involved travelling to a large estate in Ireland – The .... Estate – to secure signatures to a conveyance required before the end of the tax year.  Having arrived at the large Irish mansion I was taken to some large upstairs windows to attempt to shoot geese with their shotguns - with no success.  The other great recollection of that client I have is that the trustees’   grandfather was with others  responsible for the building of the Royal Albert Hall.  The clients in Ireland owned a grand tier box at the Royal Albert Hall which they were happy for Witham Weld partners and staff to use.  Attending for the last night of the proms was a great occasion but there were also pop concerts, tennis and other activities at the Royal Albert Hall which we used to enjoy before the box was sold on. 

The ... family in Dorset were also then clients.  I recall driving down to their estate for the first time and when I stopped to check a local map   there were some huge bangs and my old Morris Minor bounced up from the road though thankfully landing on four wheels.  No one had warned me that ...Castle was next to the army firing ranges.  Speaking of castles, another frightening episode arose upon my visiting the late Duke of ... Castle in ....  Problems had arisen with some battlement repairs.  The Duke who seemed quite elderly, arranged for a large ladder to be brought to the castle wall which he then proceeded to climb up.  Frankly I have little head for heights and certainly not for climbing long distances up ladders but he was about 40 or 50 years older than me then so I felt that I had to follow.  

Another Catholic peer of the realm the late Lord ...who was a client of Brendan’s, once asked me to have lunch with him at the House of Lords which was a great experience.  Years later however I saw a letter he wrote to Brendan Garry hopefully in jest, asking whether Witham Weld had been responsible for the downfall of more old Catholic families than any other institution since the reformation.  But thankfully times and peers of the realm, have moved on.

In the wider world, life was as turbulent then as it is now.  One of the Witham Weld Partners ..., who lived in an oast house in Kent, arranged with the then Shah of Iran who for some reason was a friend of his, to export large volumes of Iranian prawns to England.  He had just struck up the deal when the Iranian revolution deposing the Shah took place.  Mr ... had been a City solicitor before joining Witham Weld and as I recollect sadly went downhill and left the firm soon afterwards.

Revolutions were occurring in Libya too.  The Libyan Peoples’ Bureau as it was then called, is in St James’ Square almost next door to the old Employment Appeal Tribunal.  On one tragic occasion, everyone attending the EAT was locked in during protests outside the Peoples’ Bureau.  Gunshots were fired from the Libyan Peoples’ Bureau murdering WPC Yvonne Fletcher.  Having been locked in to the EAT for the day in those circumstances perhaps unsurprisingly most of the legal cases settled. 

Over the years Employment Tribunals have been dangerous places, When the Central Office for the Employment Tribunals was round the corner at Ebury Bridge, the IRA attempted to bomb the neighbouring army barracks.  Then following its move     another bomb  this time Islamic, on 7th July 2005 blew up a double-decker bus immediately outside the ET building in Tavistock Square. 

While on the subject of Employment Tribunals the first ET case involving a sex discrimination claim by a woman who remained at work I undertook for my wife Breda against the Bank of Ireland.  She lost; but the next day her bank at Balham was raided by the Bank of Ireland inspectors who found that her bank manager had opened fictitious accounts and with male staff only, had enjoyed times  at the Bank’s expense, at local public houses. He was sacked (somewhat quietly) and Breda promoted to the Bank of Ireland’s Head Office in the City.  

Another odd case with which I became involved seems almost unique although Alexa recalls a not entirely different case somewhat later. 

Many years ago there was a prisoner at ... Mental Hospital near Liverpool.  He had been detained on Her Majesty’s pleasure following the killing of a crew member on a cargo ship where he had also been a member of the crew.  As he was a mental patient rather than a convicted prisoner, he still continued to receive his social security which totalled an extraordinary amount something like £40,000.  He got my name at random out of a telephone directory and asked me to appear for him at the Hospital Parole Board for which he would pay the firm’s normal charges.  His mental condition was disastrous but although I felt that the application for parole was bound to fail, I agreed to represent him.  Such a case would never these days be dealt with by a trainee or young solicitor but in those days it was.  Interestingly the outcome today would probably have been the same as the outcome then namely that detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure would continue.  In fact the Supreme Court only last week has ruled that   parole hearings must be arranged for prisoners even where the   outcomes of continued incarceration  seem  inevitable.

While recalling times spent for the firm at Liverpool there was one Liverpool Employment Tribunal case which I recollect not so much because of what the case was about but because the hearing took place in the very impressive Cunard Building on the Quayside at Liverpool.  In London, Employment Tribunals have one waiting room for all claimants together and one for all respondents but at the time, the Liverpool Cunard Building had individual waiting rooms for each case; one for each claimant and one for each respondent. 

Again, another sad but memorable case near Liverpool was at Preston Crown Court years ago where our client was on trial for child abuse.  The criminal barrister I   instructed had previously been a reporter with the News of the World.  The case was long, difficult and at one stage we moved hotels to have a swimming pool so that the rigours of the day’s work could be swum off so-to-speak each evening.  When the guilty verdicts were returned some dreadful photographs taken by our client when   in Zimbabwe were produced, which neither we nor the jury had seen previously, which very sadly really confirmed the wisdom of the jury’s decision. Thankfully the barrister was able to use his journalism contacts to reduce the publicity.

A sadly common unfairness which I learned quite quickly as a Witham Weld Articled Clerk was that of racial discrimination. 

With me as an Articled Clerk was Ralph Doyle who I was I believe was among if not the first non British subject Articled Clerk in the country.  He came from Trinidad & Tobago.  He taught me very quickly how unfair particularly then, life was for many immigrant families.  In those days we as Articled Clerks had to attend personally at Somerset House to arrange for   stamp duty payments on conveyances and other deeds. On one occasion when going with him there, he greeted Caribbean postmen,   who   were complete strangers to him, with a waived fist type salute.  I learned from Ralph probably more about the hurts of discrimination than from anyone else. Interestingly he went on to have a most successful legal career back home where he became Attorney General.

Various other odd cases occurred over the years including one which involved the adopted nephew of the Late  ...  being arrested by the police for throwing stones on Brighton Beach after a football match. I managed  so-to-speak  to get him off.  There was also guest who attended a party of Charles or Nicholas Bellord but was arrested for allegedly being drunk whilst waiting for a bus home at about 1:00 am.  I lost his case in the Magistrates’ Court but the appeal then took place at the Crown Court near Harrods.  Before the hearing began the judge announced that she had to leave by 1:00 pm as she was getting married that afternoon and asked whether it would be possible for our case to be finished in time.  I replied that it would be possible as my client was quite innocent.  The prosecution then seemed to lose the plot but in any event he was acquitted that morning probably quite by luck. 

Yet another case involved an appeal from the EAT to the Court of appeal. As I had represented the client without counsel at the ET and EAT the client a well known Catholic institution did not wish counsel to be briefed for the Court of Appeal hearing. In those days solicitors were not permitted to represent clients in the Court of Appeal and even today the right is very restricted. In any event I wrote to the Lord Chancellor. He agreed provided that this exceptional hearing was not publicised by us. The court gave me  good hearing and I am pleased to say that the catholic client was successful even securing an order for costs against the claimant.

The law and practice of law have changed enormously since those days and, of course, most solicitors in the 21st Century have to be far more specialised we had to   in the mid 20th Century.  Nonetheless, two of the most memorable legal cases that I have worked on took place only during the past couple of years or so. 

The first was an Employment Tribunal case for the Methodists in Truro, Cornwall.  Staying at a local hotel and having supper with two of the Methodists Leaders including the current President was, of course, very fulfilling as indeed was the outcome of the case which we won though counsel was not involved at all for the Methodists.    Counsel was  then briefed for the Employment Appeal Tribunal and Court of Appeal but the decisions went the other way. In February 2013 the dispute went to the Supreme Court where each side had three counsel as well as solicitors. 

We   fully expected to lose because most other Employment Tribunal cases involving ministers of religion have been lost by the various churches since the beginning of C21.  In the event, our case was a resounding success which was particularly uplifting as the last time a Witham Weld client had been to what was then called the House of Lords, was in 1948 where the claim was academically at least dismissed. 

As exciting but much more humbling, was the request also in 2013 by a client to meet with a man who lived in Vancouver Island in Canada. ....   .... The journey to Canada was exciting, initially flying over icebergs near the North Pole and then sitting next to the pilot in a small seaplane flying from Vancouver to Vancouver Island but the meeting with the claimant was humbling.  He was about my age and had ...  ...   ... for most of his life.  He drove me to a local coffee house and essentially the matter was settled there between us after two or three of hours.  The settlement was subsequently approved by the clients and I then took a train to Seattle never having been to Canada or the USA before for a few days sightseeing.

One of the most high profile successes recently involved  ... ...a ....building near to ...the ... Thames ... St Georges Square.  A  crane  in the same sort of area was tragically hit by a helicopter last year killing the pilot and a passenger though the pilot's final great action was to ensure that the  helicopter crashed away from crowded... SWTrain station.    Before that virtually on the steps of the Court a xxx settlement for our client was reached – a great record (the settlement sum  which  I leave blank to protect the innocent was subsequently published in the payer's annual report to its shareholders)

Perhaps more importantly is a low profile recent matter.  The sister of an Iraqi friend of mine is a nun in Baghdad.  To obtain a visa to visit England she has to travel to Jordan.  She did that last year and for what appeared to her and myself to be political/quasi religious reasons, was refused the visa.  Her sister and brother asked if I would attend at an Immigration Tribunal to fight her case.  We travelled to the Immigration Tribunal near Heathrow Airport but shortly before the hearing was due to commence, the Crown capitulated without explanation and the visa was granted for two years.  As it happens, she came to England for her niece’s wedding in June.  Luckily for her the dreadful fighting now affecting Iraq again, commenced early after her arrival in England under the visa so thankfully she can bide her time here.

The two most unusual matters that I recall at Witham Weld were firstly in the early 1970s there was an appeal during Mass for some £25,000 for the repairs needed for a central London church roof.  As it happens, among the congregation was an American oil prospector.  After mass he told the parish priest that there was a problem for his company which might be resolved by the church which would then also have its roof repaired.  The problem was that oil had been discovered in the ... North Sea oil field but American law did not then permit loans to be made based on oil under the sea.  The oil had to be extracted before money could be lent but oil extraction was and is very expensive.  In England the loan was regarded simply as a commercial transaction so it was agreed that if the church supported the loan (at no liability to itself) it would receive 0.00001 per cent of the oil revenues up to £25,000.  This would then enable the American company to benefit and secure loans directly. 

The charity commission had no objection so the matter was agreed in principle which meant that as an almost newly qualified solicitor, it was necessary to gen up on oil prospecting and North Sea oil finance documents.  The task was made somewhat less difficult by the American oil company agreeing to pay all the costs including those of any American agents we involved. The deal was eventually done successfully and the church roof repaired.  Shortly afterwards however another oil field was discovered immediately under the ... oil field in the North Sea and the process was repeated but by then we all knew what we were doing.

Secondly and perhaps the most exciting task   I undertook at Witham Weld was that of being honorary solicitor to the visit to the United Kingdom of Pope John Paul II in May 1982.  Unlike the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI which was a state visit, Pope John Paul II’s visit was pastoral, which meant that it had to be paid for by the men and women in the catholic pews rather than the government.  As   Honorary Solicitor more experience covering a large number of different areas of law was gained at that time than might have been accumulated after years of work.  Trademarks and licensing were essential for the papal visit finance raising; 1982 was well before the mobile phone had been invented so deals had to be done with British Telecom/The Post Office for arrays of telephone lines at various sites around the country; there were negotiations with the police for security; rights of way and licences for using fields stadiums and offices.  Finally when all was almost ready for a visit, war broke out with Argentina about the Falklands.  The visit was almost cancelled but His Holiness thankfully arranged an almost impromptu visit to the Argentina for June 1982 which meant that he could still visit England in May.  As was the practice in those days there was a free public access to all the events although what with opposition from Dr. Ian Paisley and the fact that an attempt had been made on the Pope’s life only in 1981, security was a problem. However all ended very well and successfully.

Overall, the past 42 years have been very happy and interesting ones professionally.  There have however of course been some difficulties but there have been huge benefits for our clients over the years and for most of the staff and partners.

Of the partners, perhaps I owe most to Brendan Garry though he has since died.  However, I well recall Michael Kelleher who was senior partner in my early years here again also now deceased.  Michael used to wear a bowler hat to work well after the bowler had gone out of fashion.  On one occasion when I was still an Articled Clerk I had to see him about a potentially serious mistake  I had made regarding some nuns’ properties in ... Road.  When I saw him his immediate reaction was not to criticise but to say “well, how can we get out of this one?”  In the event, the matter was happily resolved but Michael’s reaction  then is one which could still profit all of us now.

More recently I owed a debt of gratitude to Alexa when I was due to travel by an early morning train to advise a school and convent in the Midlands. At 1 am that morning however Breda began to go into labour with one of our children and needed to be taken to hospital. I telephoned Alexa at that unearthly hour and she calmly took the matter on for the clients.

Finally, some thank yous...

The initial idea was to give a minute's farewell talk after receiving what turned out to be some very generous personal as well as office thank yous. However in the end a talk of about one minute for each year of work seemed right.


  1. I found your blog while searching for Moreton House where Brendan Garry used to live. It made interesting reading as I was familiar with some of your observations. Possibly the Irish residence and last night at the proms! Brendan was my Godfather and was a truly lovely man.

    1. Brendan was a good, wise man and an excellent principal for a trainee solicitor - may he RIP.


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