Nigel Shepherd - speech to National Conference 2017
31 Mar 2017
Nigel Shepherd, National Chair
Speech to Resolution National Conference
31 March 2017, Hilton Birmingham Metropole
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you Rhian for such a warm welcome, and good morning everyone.
It’s fantastic to be in the West Midlands, as I’ve been reminded to say, rather than Birmingham.
However, our very first conference as an organisation was 1989 in Birmingham itself. I confess that I’ve been to every single one since. That must be worth a Blue Peter badge or something! There were some technical issues in those very early days. I seem to recall that at one point we got Radio 2 coming through the PA system.
We’ve learned a lot since then!
As we saw in the montage, there is more to this area than you might think.
In the run up to conference, some members have been asking if we’re in the NEC itself – where the arena holds up to 16,000 people. I took this as a positive sign of our ambition for the future.
Proud of our achievements
Last year, one of my themes when I stood before you as your new Chair, or rather your returning Chair, was unfinished business. I had a real sense of pride over what Resolution has achieved for our members.
What we have achieved for family justice.
And, most importantly, what we have achieved for those who seek our help.
Twelve months on, I’m even prouder, because with the hard work of our members, supported by my National Committee colleagues and in partnership with our fantastic staff team, we have continued to build on these achievements. There will always be more to do but we continue to punch above our weight.
As Chair, you get to see a different side of Resolution. You get to see all the wide-ranging and diverse work at much closer quarters. You get to really appreciate the enthusiasm and commitment of everyone involved.
A particular commitment is shown by those who put themselves forward for election to our National Committee. Being at the heart of our work is a privilege and incredibly rewarding professionally and personally, but it carries with it a lot of responsibility and hard work on top of the day job. It’s extremely encouraging and shows the strength of our organisation that despite the ever-increasing demands on our time, we had 7 outstanding candidates for 5 vacancies in this year’s elections.
For the first time these have been carried out online, reflecting our continued efforts to increase member engagement and encourage even more members to have a say in how your organisation is run.
I’m delighted that Peter Burgess; Edward Cooke; Emma Cordock and Bina Modi will be joining us on National Committee, together with Karin Walker who was successfully re-elected, and I know they will all make a valuable contribution to the work NC does on your behalf.
Of course, new members joining NC means we must say goodbye to those who are standing down.
I’d like to thank Lucy Loizou, who has been instrumental in kickstarting YRes, and Phil Barnsley, who has worked with such enthusiasm and determination on our regional development. Lucy, Phil, thank you for all you’ve done.
Also stepping down from National Committee, after some twenty five years, is someone I want to give particular thanks to – James Pirrie. He and I have been neck and neck in the “Get a Life” contest for the longest time on NC! and James has played a key role in some of the pivotal moments in our development.
Amongst many achievements he helped devise parenting after parting and was instrumental in introducing collaborative practice in England & Wales.
And his tireless commitment to our Code and to organisation was rightly recognised when he was a worthy first recipient of the John Cornwell Award back in 2014
He’s unable to be with us today, but James, thank you for all you’ve done for Resolution.
Sir Nicholas Wall
On a more sombre note, recently the wider family law community sadly lost one of its leading figures, Sir Nicholas Wall.
As some of you will remember, while he was President of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas addressed our National Conference in Leeds, back in 2012. As well as being a fine lawyer, he was a kind and principled man who was always concerned about how we as professionals and indeed society dealt with the most vulnerable.
And returning to my theme of unfinished business, he was of course, a huge advocate for no fault divorce. At that conference, five years ago, he said “I am a strong believer in marriage. But I see no good arguments against no fault divorce.”
That one sentence, showed how – contrary to some of the false arguments put forward by an ever dwindling band of opponents – it is possible to be positive about marriage whilst calling for a fairer divorce system.
Sir Nicholas said this at a time when, outside of Resolution, not that many people were talking about the issue.
I’m pleased to say that has changed.
No fault divorce
In the last few months, no fault divorce is receiving more and more public backing from other luminaries in the family law arena.
Lord Wilson of the Supreme Court.
Sir Paul Coleridge of the Marriage Foundation – like Sir Nicholas, demonstrating that making the case for no fault divorce is not an argument against marriage.
In the media, the Economist recently asserted reform was long overdue.
It’s even received positive coverage in the Daily Mail.
It’s clearly no coincidence that this increased attention has come in the weeks and months following Resolution’s first ever Lobby Day, which saw 150 members travel from all over the country, to Parliament, to talk to MPs about the need for reform.
At conference last year, I spoke about my personal mission to make progress on this issue.
And, I can tell you it was really something to walk into that room in Parliament one bright November day, and to see so many of our members who shared my goal to consign fault-based divorce to the history books. It was a testament to the true strength and collective power of our membership.
By the way, there is a way you can show your support at conference. During the breaks, a member of the team will be circulating with a prop - please do get a photo with it and tweet your support for no fault divorce.
At the lobby day, the reception we received from MPs – from all parties – was overwhelmingly positive. Like Sir Nicholas Wall, many of them could see no argument against reform.
Last week we had the judgment in Owens v Owens – a case that underlines the need for no fault divorce arguably more than any other. It was clear that the President and others made their decision with a very heavy heart.
And this highlights exactly why the law needs to change – it’s simply wrong in this day and age that someone should be forced to stay in a loveless marriage because the behaviour on the divorce petition wasn’t deemed ‘unreasonable’ enough.
There are more than 110,000 divorces each year – every day the government delays, more than 300 couples get a divorce.
That’s 600 people, every day, running the gauntlet of a system that actively encourages conflict and blame. Many of them, since LASPO, are forced to do so with minimal or often no support from professionals.
Some of you will know we’ve been working with Professor Liz Trinder on her research into no fault divorce. Following the judgment, Liz published her team’s interim findings.
They support the argument that reform of the divorce law is long overdue and that a single system of notification of intent to divorce would be clearer, more honest and neutral between petitioner and respondent.
Encouragingly, Liz told us that the Ministry of Justice had shown considerably more interest in her research since our day in Parliament.
And, just two days ago, in the House of Lords, a Government spokesperson said they acknowledged the calls for reform and will consider them alongside other family justice changes.
Things are moving quickly. But, in my view, they’re not moving quickly enough.
In the face of this growing momentum, it does beg the question:
What is the Government waiting for?
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it today and I’ll keep on saying it - It’s time for Government to end the blame game, and end it now.
This time last year I don’t think many of us genuinely thought we’d be faced with the chaos and uncertainty that has accompanied the Brexit vote.
Thankfully our international committee are working on what this means for family law. They continue to produce briefings for members, like the one that went out minutes after Article 50 was triggered. The Committee’s chair, Daniel Eames, gave evidence to the justice select committee on the issue, and in their report last week, the committee incorporated virtually all the points Daniel made.
The government has committed to a review of the impact of Legal Aid cuts. Whilst this is long overdue, we have to be realistic about the likelihood of any significant reversal of policy especially as government departments are being asked by the Treasury to find yet more savings.
Despite this we continue to push for incremental improvements – for example, as a result of our lobbying, alongside other organisations, the government has committed to end the cross-examination of alleged victims of domestic abuse by their former partners.
Resolution members are also working with the Family Law Panel, to provide free or reduced cost support to those on low incomes – again, helping those who would otherwise be left with no legal support, and deal with the rise of Litigants in Person.
Please do speak to the Family Law Panel at their stand, or look at the helpful video on their website, for more information as to how you can get involved. It really is a fantastic service and a great example of the work being done to provide a practical solution to the problems caused by cuts to legal aid, and I’m very proud that Resolution is involved.
Like the lobby day I mentioned earlier, the Family Law Panel is an example of what we can achieve through the collective strength of our members.
And, I’m delighted to be able to say to you that our network of regional groups is stronger than ever.
Whatever we do at a national level, we know that for the majority of our members, your main point of contact will be with your regional committees and fellow members in your area.
That’s why we’ve made a concerted effort in recent years – spearheaded by Phil Barnsley and of course Sue Gunn – to support our amazing regional committees. We now have more active regional groups – and YRes groups – than ever before.
NC members are always happy to come and speak at a regional event and meet members. In fact, we’re more than merely happy - we find it an invaluable way of finding out what you’re experiencing on the ground and how Resolution can support you.
Through our committees, we have around 1,000 active volunteer members.
It is a phenomenal number, and a phenomenal commitment from each and every one of you.
You see the results in everything we do, whether it’s a national conference, a new good practice guide, or the recent launch of our new Code of Practice.
All of this is possible only because of our members.
To paraphrase the late great John F Kennedy, you have asked not what Resolution can do for you, but what you can do for Resolution.
Resolution’s staff team
I’ve mentioned National Committee and our huge army of volunteers. But at the heart of it all, making it happen on a day to day basis, is our outstanding staff team, led by our Chief Executive, Colin Jones.
If you’re involved in one of our committees, you’ll have seen something of the contribution they make and will know that it’s far more than “simply doing their job.”
But as Chair, I get to see what they do at close hand. And believe me, it’s a privilege to work with this team. They not only deliver all the essential member services, but also help NC develop and deliver on key projects and initiatives that benefit our members.
The contrast between my experience over the last year, with the staff support we have now, and what we had when I was last Chair, is huge. Don’t get me wrong, we achieved a great deal back then with limited resources, but now we have the ability to do so much more because we have a genuine partnership between members and staff. They bring skills and experience we could never hope to replicate as volunteers even if we had the time to do so.
Without them we wouldn’t have our biggest ever National Conference; we wouldn’t have as many members joining and renewing; we wouldn’t be able to take so many calls from members of the public looking for help; we couldn’t have undertaken Family Matters and we couldn’t have held a lobby day.
Be in no doubt, they are just as passionate and committed to Resolution as anyone else in this room.
They don’t like to take curtain calls.
But I’d like them to do so today.
Colin, Sue, Claire, Matt, Paul, and the rest of the team – thank you for everything you do for our members and for the support you’ve personally given me during this first year back as Chair.
I’m very proud and honoured to serve as your National Chair and indeed to be the first person to have held this role on two separate occasions.
However, you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear that there definitely won’t be a third term! To paraphrase Sir Steve Redgrave - if you see me trying to get back into the Resolution Chairmanship boat again you have permission to shoot me – and you’ll have to join a queue behind my wife Sandra!.
So this is therefore my last speech to national conference as Chair, before handing over next year to Margaret Heathcote, our current vice-chair, who I know will do a fantastic job.
I have great hopes for Resolution’s future. I mentioned YRes earlier – it’s so important to us as an organisation, but more importantly, to the profession, that we’re taking a proactive role to encourage the next generation of family lawyers.
Those of you who were at national conference in Brighton two years ago will have heard Rhian talk previously, at the formal launch of YRes. And, sitting there today as Chair of your region, you represent exactly what YRes is all about.
Sarah Green is another example – Sarah has been absolutely key to putting YRes at the centre of our thinking, and, sitting on National Committee, makes sure that ‘Old Res’ never forgets what’s important to those near the start of their careers.
Rhian, Sarah, I hate to break it to you, but alongside your YRes colleagues, the future of Resolution lies in your hands.
There is much we have achieved in our first 30-odd years. But, long after I’ve officially retired, you will shape what we achieve in the next 30 years.
No pressure, but we’re kind of depending on you!
And I know you’ll deliver, alongside the rest of our membership, inside this room and around the country.
So - although I speak about my personal ambition to address unfinished business - in actual fact, I suspect the work of Resolution and our members will never be truly finished. It will always be a work in progress. We will always keep on learning and looking for ways to improve what we do.
But, with your continued support and commitment. I know that every day, we will move a step further along the road.
Thank you, and enjoy the rest of conference.