John wall 1930-2008
From The Times December 11, 2008
Sir John Wall: first blind High Court judge of
Sir John Wall
Wall: 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.
Wall 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.
John 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 in 1940.
Quickly 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
After 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.
Despite 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
It was also felt that the presence of a blind
judge would fail to inspire the confidence of the public in his ability to
After 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.
In 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.
Wall 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 by
Renowned 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
Wall retired as a partner at Lawrence Graham in
1993, spending two further years as a consultant. He continued sitting as a
judge until 2002.
Outside 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.
Wall 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.
Serving 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.
In 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.
Wall married twice; both of his wives
predeceased him. He is survived by his four sons from his first marriage.
Sir John Wall, CBE, solicitor and judge, was
born on June 4, 1930. He died of heart failure on December 1, 2008, aged
Case 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
The 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.
It 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.
I 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.
At 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.
In 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.
I 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.
I 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
If 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.
Maybe 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.
Thinking 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
In 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.
While 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
Sir 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 Court.
But 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.