Obituary: Sir John Latey

Mathew Thorpe
Friday 14 May 1999 23:02

JOHN LATEY devoted his whole life to what is now called family law.

This was not fortuitous since he was the son of a very distinguished divorce lawyer, William Latey QC, who was not only a successful practitioner but also a learned author, launching in 1931 a standard work that became universally known as Latey on Divorce. He was responsible for each succeeding edition until the last in 1973; John was co-editor of the 1952 penultimate edition. William's final phase was judicial, sitting between 1953 and 1965 as a Divorce Commissioner exercising the full jurisdiction of a High Court judge in divorce.

On 6 January 1965 John Latey was appointed a judge of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division. Thus son followed in father's footsteps: not only following but outshining the paternal light. Whilst father was small and stocky, every inch the combative advocate, John was tall and elegant in appearance and expression. It is difficult to write of one without the other, so intertwined were their professional lives. One small instance of this inter-relationship is that from the moment of John's arrival at the practising Bar his father was re-christened by his associates "Father William".

John Latey was born in London in 1914. He was educated at Westminster and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Law, and played football and tennis for his college. He was called to the Bar by his father's inn, the Middle Temple, in 1936 and from the outset specialised in the fields of probate and divorce. His career was punctuated by the war. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel being appointed MBE for his work in the Judge Advocate's Department.

The practice which Latey resumed was radically altered by social change. So many relationships had fallen victim to war. Divorce could no longer be reserved for the affluent. There was a consequential diminution in the stigma and the jurisprudence procedures and practices surviving from the introduction of forensic divorce in 1857 rendered the work of the divorce specialist increasingly irrelevant and perhaps dispiriting.

When Latey took silk in 1957 the development of a burgeoning and fulfilling practice as a leader was a clear impossibility. But if anyone thrived at that level in that difficult time of transition it was John Latey. As well as appearing in a number of fashionable divorce suits he appeared, unsuccessfully, for the appellant in the then leading case of Gollins in 1963. However he failed by the narrowest margin and one of their lordships whom he persuaded was Lord Hodson, a former judge of the Divorce Division.

The transition from the archaic role of Probate, Divorce and Admiralty to the contemporary family justice system was achieved by many small steps but the milestone statutes were undoubtedly the Divorce Reform Act 1969, the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970 and the Children Act 1989. The revitalising effect of the first two statutes came too late to offer opportunity to John Latey. It is a mark of his distinction that he, almost alone of his contemporaries at the divorce bar, was chosen for High Court appointment. Contemporary appointees were from other fields. Yet none rendered greater or more distinguished service on the bench. He did not retire until 10 January 1989 after 24 years of unbroken sitting and within two months of his 75th birthday. Even after his retirement he regularly returned to sit as a deputy when help was needed.

This span of almost 25 years saw revolutionary changes. It might have been thought that John Latey, trained in the old school, might find it hard to adapt to different standards, objectives and underlying principles. Far from proving a reluctant learner he demonstrated that he was an innovator in many respects, anticipating trends which were later to become conventional.

The most significant feature of his judicial style, and perhaps in the light of his background the least expected, was the rejection of adversariality. The percentage of cases in his list that settled, in whole or in part, was much above the norm.

He had an instinct for the real issue in a case, not just as analysed by the advocate, but as felt by the litigants. On innumerable occasions at the close of the opening and before the corrosive impact of evidence, a quiet invitation from the judge to withdraw to consider an aspect which he emphasised or a resolution which avoided humiliation initiated a process of negotiation that removed the need for further confrontation in court. This extraordinary capacity resulted from his profound kindliness and his equal understanding of human nature.

But he was in no sense a weak judge. He could be scathingly critical of tactics that violated his sense of fairness or human dignity. He could be trenchant in upholding rights threatened by abuse. If a case required analysis of legal principle his conclusions generally stood unimproved by subsequent appellate review. These qualities were apparent not only to the Bar who appeared before him but equally to litigants in person. Courtesy and a complete absence of judicial self-importance humanised all the proceedings in his court.

As well as for his judicial work he will be remembered for his report on reducing the age of majority from 21 to 18 which found swift adoption in the Family Law Reform Act 1969.

In 1938, shortly after his call to the Bar, he married Betty Beresford. He was blessed with the happiest of marriages.

Mathew Thorpe

John Brinsmead Latey, judge: born London 7 March 1914; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1936; MBE 1943; QC 1957; Judge of the High Court of Justice, Family Division (formerly Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division) 1965-89; Kt 1965; PC 1986; married 1938 Betty Beresford (one son, one daughter); died Adderbury, Oxfordshire 24 April 1999.

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