Sir John wall 1930-2008

From The Times December 11, 2008


Sir John Wall: first blind High Court judge of modern times


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 challenge.


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 witnesses.


It was also felt that the presence of a blind judge would fail to inspire the confidence of the public in his ability to preside effectively.


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 him.


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 78.




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

sighted person.


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

of variety.


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 succeed.


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.















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