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Local lawyers, public practice

Justice from Old Bailey HB EditorialJohn Emms has written a book on the history of Solicitors in Local Government and reveals some of his discoveries.

I don't know what came into my mind when, receiving an unexpected suggestion that I might like to write a history of Solicitors in Local Government and its predecessor organisations, I unexpectedly agreed. But whatever it was it surely wasn't anything like what I've just delivered, three weeks late, to the publisher

I undertook this project at the 50th Weekend School, in 2009, with a merry comment to new SLG chairman Guy Goodman that it would be finished during his year in office. It wasn’t.

I cannot say I have been working on it slavishly from then till now. There have been periods of feverish activity and other periods when life intervened. But it has been pleasant to be able to renew acquaintance with many old friends, not least those who were initially reluctant to respond, before realising that responding was probably the best way of stopping me pestering them. No less pleasant has been making contact with a number of new friends, some of them older than the old friends.

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I have consulted paper records where available and accessible, the Law Society's excellent library service, various periodicals and their online archives and, naturally, SLG's magazine Noter Up, and SLG's website too; though it took me a while to realise that history isn't only in the past. On the contrary, when I started, rather more than three years of it was still in the future, and it was, of course, being constantly created. At times it was being created faster than I was writing it down.

But my principal source of what I like to think of as being the really interesting stuff – the information which, I hope, turns it from a turgid recitation of facts to a story of real live people, has been the people themselves. I haven’t counted the number of folk whom I have deluged with letters, phone-calls and especially emails, asking or begging for or demanding information, recollections, anecdotes, photographs; but it must be over a hundred.

Finding some of them was fun, too. Where I had either no contact details or out of date information, I found Google to be a remarkable resource [other search engines are available], pointing me to individuals using their retirement to participate in all sorts of things: such as the Railway Heritage Trust, the Parole Board, the Girl Guide organisation, the Church of England Synod, the City of Peterborough Symphony Orchestra, Littlehampton Croquet Club or Kirk Braddan PCC on the Isle of Man. On the other hand, people’s memories being what they seem to be, several were a little uncertain about what they were telling me and some disagreed with each other, leading to interesting exchanges between people whom I had deliberately contacted in groups to encourage exactly such debates. A number even disagreed with what I told them were my own clear memories. So not quite everything could be definitive. But, let's face it, totally definitive would have been potentially boring.

Then there were the photographs. Unsurprisingly the further back the date the fewer the photos; so it was a bit of a struggle to find any of founders of the organisation. But since they all became town (or county) clerks in due course, some of them remain in archives. So, many thanks to the Plymouth Herald and Nottingham City Council. On the other hand, one of the early chairmen, R.O.F. Hickman of Blackpool, turned up on the internet, signing a document with Billy Butlin in the Daily Mail. I was quoted £150 to use that one. For one picture. Clearly whoever came up with that didn't understand that he was dealing with someone from the public sector. So if you want to see R.O.F. Hickman, I suggest you search online against his name with "town clerk", "Blackpool" and "Butlin" and you should find him.

Anyway, it all began in 1947, as you may know. At that time recent experiences of most people, including local government lawyers, had been somewhat exceptional. So, for instance, one future chairman of the organisation who by the end of that year would be a senior assistant solicitor in Derby, at the start of the year was a military magistrate in Germany, having earlier won a Military Cross on active service. Another future chairman was studying for his law degree, having spent the war, after leaving school, flying in bombers. I suspect there are few who can make similar claims today.

That year, too, by coincidence perhaps, quite a lot was happening of significance to all local government lawyers. Not least was a small picture house in Wednesbury becoming unreasonably upset about the conditions reasonably attached to its licence by the local corporation. Wednesbury would, incidentally, several years later also become the birthplace of yet another person destined to chair the organisation.

The details of how it will all end are still being worked out in discussions with ACSeS and with the Law Society. How it all progressed in between has been described, from slightly differing points of view, by two more former chairmen of the organisation. “A knowledgeable, professional, informative and social group”, said one, leading me to think that I must get those elements across in the book. The other's version, “All that’s in the memory box is laughter, alcohol and gossip”, led me to think that those elements deserved a mention, too.

So it's no surprise that amongst the result is a selection of potential questions for the quiz at next year's SLG weekend school:

  • Why did the mainstream press once invade the weekend school?
  • Why did the Law Society ask to join the employees' side of the NJC?
  • Why did Dame Sybil Thorndyke turn up to a meeting of local government lawyers, along with a famous ballerina and two radio comics?
  • In what respect did the Law Society put private sector interests at risk in the 1990s in order to look after the interests of employed lawyers?
  • Who, on the other hand, described the Law Society's Council as "just plain incontinent" and why? Supplementary question - what on earth did he mean?
  • For whom did pig-slaughtering form part of his legal training?

Answers (except to the supplementary question) available on application. But, of course, you'll have to buy the book to find them.

John Emms was Solicitor to Kirkless Metropolitan Borough Council between 1994 and 2007.

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