Discipleship... and a career in family law: A personal perspective

Peter Duckworth
  • Date 1 April 2011
  • People Peter Duckworth
  • Category Specialisms
Peter Duckworth

Leading family law barrister Peter Duckworth shares his own story as a disciple of Jesus Christ

What motivated me to become a barrister? I could answer that question in several ways: Perry Mason, a trip to the local Quarter Sessions as a teenager, Thespian tendencies, becoming inspired upon reading Six Great Advocates, and so forth. But looking back I would like to acknowledge divine guidance as a primary factor.

Life for me has been characterised by long periods of slow burn, like a dormant volcano, interspersed by sudden bursts of activity when a lot of things fell into place. The first of these happened when I was a young barrister of 7 years' call, kicking my heels with no work.

Briefly, I had been taken on as a tenant in a mediocre set of chambers in the Temple. My head of chambers was a Mason, and as for the senior clerk, I knew from Day 1 that my face didn't fit. (In those days, clerks wielded power and were paid 10%). So the diary was empty, and I had to rustle up briefs from a free legal advice centre at £2.35 a go, £3.35 for a trial. One day a cheque came in for £36.50 representing about ten cases. I showed it to my senior clerk, who grudging conceded: "They do mount up, don't they?" In a momentary lapse into paganism, I felt like socking him in the face!

So it was that one morning, sitting at the desk and twiddling my thumbs as usual, I turned my thoughts to writing a book on matrimonial finance, a burgeoning new area of law that was emerging from the 1970 divorce reforms. I had toyed with the idea before, but this particular morning (for some reason) I got up out of the chair, crossed the corridor and announced my intentions to a colleague in chambers. "In that case", she said, "you had better speak to XY, who has been approached; don't get your wires crossed". It was as she said; only XY didn't want the job. So a couple of phone calls later, and as the editor quaffed his fourth glass of wine over lunch at The George, the contract was sealed.

Writing Matrimonial Property & Finance was an outlet that kept me busy for the next few years but also consolidated my practice as a specialist. Out of it came other opportunities, like conference speaking, article writing, serving on the FLBA Committee (ultimately as Treasurer), and consulting with the government. It also helped to put three boys through school. I regard all of this as God's blessing.

Life in the Temple wasn't always grim and, for me, a highlight was belonging to the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, serving on its Committee under John Colyer QC, and joining the Bar Prayer Group which in those days happened at 6 o'clock on a Wednesday evening in the crypt of the Temple Church, led by a fantastic young barrister (sadly, long since deceased) called Jeremy Maurice.

Jeremy taught me a lesson I've never forgotten. It was the "barrister's prayer" and ran like this: "Always pray for your cases. Pray that justice will be done, that the solicitor will be pleased and the client pleased". That this simple yet profound formula works, I can testify from own experience. Jeremy used to say, "Without prayer, I would be nothing." I echo that.

Another Christian lawyer I greatly enjoyed working with, who used to send me briefs in the days when our paths crossed, was Charles Wilson. Charles prayed for cases too, so we did it together, sometimes with amusing results. For instance, at times it seemed we took a pasting in the morning, but after a quick word of prayer at lunch, things ran ultra-smoothly in the afternoon! I stress that the vision I shared with Charles was not so much to win cases as to achieve a just result. Of course, you litigate to the best of your skill and ability; but the outcome is in God's hands. I have discovered that even when you lose a case, nevertheless when it has been prayed about, something of sweetness and light comes out that leaves a lasting impression. The 'fragrance of Jesus', I think, as the old hymn puts it.

One of Charles's cases was for a Christian lady whose marriage had broken down when her husband (not a believer) left home to take up with another woman. He followed this up with an application for custody, claiming that she was indoctrinating their teenage children with breakfast Bible readings, etc. Her faith was therefore on trial. Well, this lady stepped up to the witness box and told the High Court judge, in a dignified way, how prayer had been answered in so many instances in the life of her family, including the occasion when, through a series of 'coincidences' her eldest daughter had met a fantastic GP who was now her fiancé! The judge, and my opponent, were flabbergasted. Anyway the husband lost his case. It seemed like that verse in Philippians: 'Every knee shall bow'.

At times I have forgotten about prayer, confident in my own skills and abilities as I deemed them to be. These episodes have ended up featureless and barren, until I returned to the basics.

I mentioned earlier occasional "eruptive moments". One of these happened some years after I had left the Temple, in the following circumstances. In 1987 our chambers was split by factions, and a bunch of us migrated to Old Buildings, Lincoln's Inn. There I had happy times, not only in practice, but also in sharing the spiritual life of the Inn through the work of the Preacher, Bill Norman, and John Lloyd, a retired officer of the Bar Council who ran the London LCF. These were great men.

Unfortunately, in 1995, divisions in chambers again became manifest and I sought relief by slipping into Lincoln's Inn Chapel every now and then to pray for a solution. I really wanted to quit and join a leading set of family law chambers; but how to find a way?—this I did not know. Then one morning I read Psalm 90, the prayer of Moses: "So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom ... Make us glad for all the days you have afflicted us ... Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands; yes, establish the work of our hands." The same day I said to Annette: "I wish I could speak to XY at the chambers in Bedford Row I would most like to join". She said to me: "Just do it". (I should explain that my wife is an Australian). Well, I did it, and the rest is history. I have now spent 15 happy years at 29 Bedford Row, the third quarter as it were of my career.

What does the fourth quarter hold? I don't know, except that I am getting involved in more extra-mural activities, as one might expect after nearly 40 years at the Bar. I still love the cut and thrust of advocacy; the theatre of the courtroom; straining every sinew to win a case (while not forgetting to pray); and writing legal articles and giving conference talks, which tend to be the more outspoken now that I have fewer people to please. Oh, and I still write the book, which one Lord Justice kindly described as "the leading textbook in its area".

Despite practising in divorce, I still think (as I have always done) that God wants to do something to rescue marriage in this country, indeed in the whole of the West.  I have formed a group called Marriages For Life that is intended to stress the benefits of lifelong marriage, not just for the Christian community but also for society as a whole. I know there are many in the LCF who are passionate about marriage and want to see lasting change in this area. If that is you, why not get in touch? We have much work ahead. Life is just beginning.

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