13:53, March 01 504 0 theguardian.com

2017-03-01 13:53:06
Sir Nicholas Wall obituary

The illness that led the judge Sir Nicholas Wall to take his own life at the age of 71 had consequences beyond the profound loss felt by his family, friends and the legal community. Though a diagnosis of a rare form of dementia came only recently, he had retired as president of the family division at the onset of the condition in 2012. This deprived the family courts and the wider world of a leading exponent of this field of law at a moment when his innovative plans had not yet come fully into effect.

Nicholas’s life in the law was largely devoted to the more effective implementation of the Children Act 1989, thereby improving the lot of children whose parents were battling in the family courts. Appointed a high court judge in 1993, he was assigned to the family division, where he made a considerable impact in the thoughtfulness and care with which he decided the difficult and sensitive cases heard there. As president of the division from 1999, I had the opportunity to appreciate his outstanding qualities.

He was openly critical of poor practice in the administration of family justice and cared deeply about the cases he tried and the issues they involved. His judgments were balanced and understanding of the difficulties faces by families in dispute. Universally popular and greatly respected, he was notably successful in his family division liaison role on the northern circuit from 1996 to 2001, responsible for the allocation of cases and the supervision of family judges in the region.

His versatility was evident in his spells as a judge of the employment appeal tribunal (2001-03) and of the administrative court (2003-04), hearing claims for judicial review, statutory review and appeals. He was appointed to the court of appeal in 2004 and became president of the family division in 2010.

As a trial judge, he questioned whether contact should be granted to fathers who were guilty of domestic violence towards mothers, which led to a system-wide reconsideration of contact decisions. In consequence, in 2004 he gave evidence to the Commons constitutional affairs committee on a report, 29 Child Homicides, produced by the organisation Women’s Aid, and submitted his own review to his predecessor as president, Sir Mark Potter. In 2008 the need to consider any issue of domestic violence became a practice direction, a supplement to rules of procedure, which is followed today.

Out of court Nicholas played a significant part in the development of family justice, including membership of the lord chancellor’s advisory board on family law and as chairman of its Children Act subcommittee. His publications included A Handbook for Expert Witnesses in Children Act Cases (2000) – still indispensable – and he was responsible for editions of the key textbook Rayden and Jackson on Divorce.

He was a champion and pioneer of the interdisciplinary approach to family law, and of the importance of recognising the insights of different disciplines, including socio-legal research, child development, attachment theory (concerning the attachment between children and their carers) and research into neuroscience. He advocated openness, frankness and transparency in the family justice process, particularly in child care applications, and strongly supported the work of contact centres for families to meet their children.

Born in Clapham, south-west London, Nicholas was the son of Frederick Wall, a director of the stamp dealing firm Stanley Gibbons, and his wife, Mimi (nee Woods). His parents were not wealthy and Nicholas never forgot that he owed his education to a London County Council scholarship to Dulwich college, and an exhibition to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read English and then law. He met his future wife, Margaret Sydee, as a teenager. They attended Cambridge together, married in 1973 and had four children, Imogen, Emma, Rosalind and Simon.

He was called to the bar by Gray’s Inn in 1969, elected a bencher in 1993 and took silk in 1988. Very successful as an advocate, with formidable skills, he practised mainly in family cases. However, he also appeared as counsel in a number of extremely important financial disputes that advanced the opportunities for the financial contributions of wives to be recognised as a right on divorce, with a move away from considerations of their financial requirements. A kind and generous pupil master, he made a point of offering support and encouragement to junior colleagues, especially those from less traditional backgrounds. Many now senior in the division remember him as a mentor and a profound personal influence.

As president he worked towards greater transparency in the family courts and, together with the Society of Editors, issued an invaluable guide, The Family Courts: Media Access and Reporting (2011), for the use of journalists, judges, barristers and solicitors.

Away from the law, Nicholas also tended to be ahead of his times. Surrounded by strong women all his life, he was a feminist who resigned from the Athenaeum club, in Pall Mall, in protest at their decision not to admit women as full members. A keen cyclist, he had a battered bike that was a familiar sight propped up in the car park of the royal courts of justice, and on the occasion of receiving his knighthood in 1993 he had to be dissuaded from biking to Buckingham Palace.

His fluency in French and German came from a farsighted decision by his mother to invite French and German students to lodge in their Clapham home so that her three children – all born during the second world war – did not grow up fearing Europeans. He was a keen bookbinder and collected antiquarian books. Passionate about opera, he had a lifelong devotion to Wagner. He also had a delightful and irreverent sense of humour.

In his final years of illness Nicholas was cared for devotedly by Margaret, with the support of their children. His family made public his decision to die by his own hand in tribute to a lifetime of creating public discussion around difficult emotional issues, and a commitment to truth and transparency.

Nicholas Peter Rathbone Wall, lawyer, born 14 March 1945; died 17 February 2017

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here: