Sir John wall 1930-2008
The Times December 11, 2008
John Wall: first blind High Court judge of modern times
worked tirelessly to help those with disabilities to integrate
into society. Blind from childhood, Sir John Wall made light of
his disability to build a distinguished career as a lawyer and
as a judge. He combined the gift of a phenomenal memory with a
passion to help others that enthused those around him, and his
clients were as committed to him as he was to them.
was also a key figure within the visually impaired community.
As well as proving that blindness need be no burden to professional
success, he worked tirelessly to help those with disabilities
to integrate easily into society.
Anthony Wall was born in 1930, in East Finchley, North London.
Although he suffered from severe glaucoma that significantly hampered
his vision, he attended a mainstream school until the age of 8,
when he lost his sight completely. After two years at Chorleywood
School for the blind, he moved to Worcester College for the Blind
distinguishing himself as an extremely able pupil, Wall took his
School Certificate - the equivalent of the present GCSE - at the
age of 14, topping his class despite being two years younger than
the other boys. Also that year, he announced himself to the chess
world, comprehensively defeating the former world champion Dr
Max Euwe in a simultaneous challenge.
another excellent performance in his Higher School Certificate
examinations, Wall accepted a place at Balliol College, Oxford.
Graduating in 1951, he read jurisprudence, and also represented
the university at chess.
his outstanding academic background, Wall encountered an institutionalised
prejudice that meant that it took more than 400 applications and
exactly 53 interviews before he was given a job. Finally employed
as an articled clerk in Wilkins, Rowan and Newman, a small Chelsea
law firm, he was admitted as a solicitor in 1954. In 1956 he began
work as a legal adviser to Nalgo, the National Association of
Local Government Officers now known as Unison. It was during this
period that he made his first attempt to join the judiciary. He
was refused, on the ground that his blindness would prevent him
from reading documents and observing the demeanour of witnesses.
was also felt that the presence of a blind judge would fail to
inspire the confidence of the public in his ability to preside
18 years at Nalgo, Wall decided to enter private practice, joining
the City firm Middleton Lewis as a partner, specialising in litigation.
Three years later the firm merged with Lawrence Graham, where
Wall continued to build a reputation for sharp legal judgment
and supreme client service.
1990 he again applied to the Department of the Lord Chancellor
to become a judge. On this occasion he was successful, appointed
a Deputy Master of the High Court and assigned to the Chancery
Division, working beside a Chief Master for a week. This was followed
by a further week sitting alone as a temporary Deputy, and in
1991 he was formally and permanently appointed to the post, the
first blind person in modern times to occupy such a position.
controlled his courtroom with a ruthless preciseness that was
also the hallmark of his style of advocacy. He did not consider
his disability to be an impediment to his career; having lost
his sight at such an early age, he felt that the heightened development
of his other senses worked to his advantage. So although he was
unable to observe the disposition of witnesses, he was sensitive
to their tone of voice and, unlike other judges, never prejudiced
for his unstinting devotion to his profession, Wall was admired
by his peers for the speed and efficiency at which he worked.
His colleagues became accustomed to receiving memos and e-mails
at odd times of the night, while remaining surprised at how quickly
he was able to complete complicated tasks. Similarly, he would
never shy from providing advice or support to clients and colleagues,
however much it inconvenienced him.
retired as a partner at Lawrence Graham in 1993, spending two
further years as a consultant. He continued sitting as a judge
his professional career, Wall served the blind community with
distinction. In 1962, he joined the executive council of what
is now known as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)
and became chairman of its publications and equipment committee
in 1967. He was appointed vice-chairman of the executive council
in 1975 and was chairman from 1990-2000.
was not, however, a one-organisation man. Donating his time as
freely as his work allowed, he drafted the constitutions of eight
other organisations for the visually impaired, and at the time
of his death was in the middle of revising that of the European
Blind Union (EBU). He also assisted numerous other groups, often
not as chairman but as secretary, never shying away from the menial
tasks that his status would have permitted him to avoid.
the EBU in a number of roles, Wall was president between 1996
and 2003. His most notable achievement was in realising that to
further the interests of partially-sighted people it was essential
that he influence the lawmakers at the European Commission.
this way, Wall helped to lead the disability movement into the
modern world. For his services to the blind community, he was
appointed CBE in 1994 and knighted in 2000.
married twice; both of his wives predeceased him. He is survived
by his four sons from his first marriage.
John Wall, CBE, solicitor and judge, was born on June 4, 1930.
He died of heart failure on December 1, 2008, aged 78.
study: Sir John Wall CBE
I was the first blind person in modern times to be appointed Deputy
High Court Master in 1990 until I retired at the end of 2002.
My blindness meant that I encountered many obstacles during my
career. It was through my determination to succeed that I was
able to become a solicitor and then proceed to the Bench.
first obstacle that I had to overcome was finding a firm that
would actually give me a job. I applied to some 400 firms and
had 53 interviews before finally being offered a post.
would be comforting to believe that employers nowadays are less
suspicious of the disabled, but it would seem that this isn't
always the case. Things haven't got a great deal better. A recent
Royal National Institute for the Deaf survey revealed that 73%
of employers would decline to take on a blind person and 70% a
deaf person. In contrast, just 50% of them would refuse someone
with a criminal record.
successfully qualified as a solicitor in 1954, and worked from
1956 to 1974 in the legal department of the National and Local
Government Officers Association.
NALGO I made my first attempt to join the judiciary. I got turned
down. The reasons given were that, as a blind person, I wouldn't
be able to observe the demeanour of witnesses, couldn't read documents
and generally wouldn't inspire the public with confidence.
1974, I left NALGO to join the law firm of Middleton Lewis, which
subsequently merged with Lawrence Graham - a firm that now has
some 80 partners. In 1990 I applied again to the Lord Chancellor's
Department to become a judge. I was listened to this time and
allowed to become a Deputy Chancery Master working beside a Chief
Master for one week. This was followed by another week sitting
by myself as a temporary Deputy.
was formally appointed in February 1991, an event that was reported
in a number of newspapers, including the Times and the Daily Telegraph.
I served until the day I retired in late 2002.
did not consider my blindness a considerable hindrance where my
judicial duties were concerned. I feel that I fulfilled my duties
as competently as a sighted person.
you were an adult and lost your eyesight over night, then you
would be utterly disorientated. But if you lost your sight a long
time ago, like I did at the age of eight, then you have developed
all sorts of ways of compensating.
I couldn't observe the demeanour of witnesses, for instance, but
I could judge them by their tone of voice. In fact, it can sometimes
be very helpful not to be prejudiced by appearances.
back on my career, I found it very fullfilling. I enjoyed being
a solicitor and was very well paid for my pains. But being a Master
was even more interesting. All the relevant facts are given to
you by the two counsels and you rarely find yourself spending
weeks on the same case - so there's plenty of variety.
June 1994, I was awarded a CBE by HM the Queen in recognition
of services to visually impaired people and was made Knight Bachelor
in June 2000.
you're struggling to find a training contract, it's hard going.
But persevere, keep cheerful, don't kid yourself that the world
owes you a living and above all, don't give up; eventually you'll
John Wall CBE - Retired Solicitor / Judge
Today, December the first, the BCA laments the death at the age
of 78, of Sir John A. Wall CBE. One of his four sons, unable to
gain entrance to his house, found him with the assistance of the
police, sitting in his chair already deceased. As a lifelong member
of the BCA, one could say that he was one of the strongest players
who never fulfilled his full potential because he opted out of
over-the-board chess, in order to concentrate on his legal career.
It is believed that he achieved the runner-up spot in the British
junior championship in 1948, and he certainly played in the "Intervarsity
chess match att least once during his three years at Oxford, where
he was reading jurisprudence. After completing his "articles",
he became for many years legal adviser to NALGO, the Natinal Association
of Local Government Officers, before becoming a partner in a well
known City law firm. He became the first blind man in this country
to be appointed judge, serving in the Family Division of the High
it's probably for his appointments in blind welfare that he became
best known to the world of the visually impaired. A by no means
exhaustive list of these includes chairmanship of the RNIB Executive
Council and, for the last twenty years or so of its International
Committee and leader of the British delegation to the European
and World Blind Unions, serving as president of the European Blind
Union for several terms. His last assignment in the international
field was as British representative to the Universal Postal Union,
fighting to maintain and extend the postal concessions granted
to the blind as spearheaded by Great Britain. He was a long-time
chairman of the British Wireless for the Blind Fund (BWBF) and
COTIS, the Confederation of Tape Information Services.