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Just passing through

John van der Luit-Drummond looks back at Solicitors Journal's illustrious 160-year history

25 September 2017

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How do you begin a eulogy for the world’s longest-running legal journal? I suppose we will just have to start at the beginning.

It was 6 May 2014 when I joined Solicitors Journal as its new reporter. I was aware of the prestigious publication’s standing within the legal market and, I thought, prepared for the responsibility entrusted in me to inform, analyse, and represent the views of the solicitor profession. I did not expect, however, to fall in love with it. Fast forward to three and a half years, some 800 articles, and who knows how many words later and I am now forced to say goodbye to a publication that has given so much to me and means so much more to lawyers across the UK. Of course, my own time at SJ is but a drop in the ocean when you consider its long, illustrious history.

Predating The Law Society’s Gazette and Register by almost half a century, the first edition of the Solicitors’ Journal and Reporter was published on 3 January 1857, promising to “contain a well-digested summary of the legal news” and devote space to “social and economical questions” but “carefully avoid party politics and theology”, all for just £2 12s a year. While the price has changed, SJ held true to its promise, staunchly maintaining editorial independence and acting as a credible interlocutor with the profession, its regulator, and the government.

Over 160 years it has borne witness to watershed moments in English and Welsh legal history. On 6 May 1865, for example, the journal reported on the challenges ahead for the soon-to-be-constructed Royal Courts of Justice, and argued that, with the Strand “already liable to be blocked by the immense amount of traffic”, the requirements of the profession must not be overlooked; there should, the journal said, “be easy means of access” for lawyers travelling to the court.

The journal also commentated on key moments in British history, such as when, on 8 August 1914, it reported of the “catastrophe” that had befallen Europe upon the outbreak of the Great War. A year later it debated the legality of conscription: “Any such proposal would raise very serious questions, and probably serious opposition… conscription places the population in slavery to a military and aggressive government, and we see the result in the present war.” And, on 16 November 1918, the journal reported on the armistice with Germany, followed a week later by printing word for word King George V’s address to parliament on victory in the war.

It is incredible to note that neither of the 20th century’s great conflicts stopped the journal from publishing week in, week out, even when a German bomb destroyed the journal’s Bream Buildings offices in 1944. Only during the fuel crisis in the winter of 1947 was SJ forced to close for two weeks following a decree from the Minister of Fuel and Power, Emanuel Shinwell.

In February 1952, the journal contemplated the change in legal terms brought in by the new reign of Elizabeth II: “It will be a little while before common use renders us unconscious of a faint, far echo of the nineteenth century when we hear of ‘Queen’s Counsel’ and the ‘Queen’s Bench’ Division.” And, on 19 May 1967, it welcomed parliament’s decision to apply for membership of the Common Market, saying: “There is no profit in mourning over lost opportunities in the past nor in gazing wistfully backwards to a world which has gone for ever.”

SJ has also long highlighted the ongoing battle for greater diversity and equality within the legal profession. On 10 January 1920 it reported that two Inns of Court had admitted “lady students”, following the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which finally allowed women to become lawyers. Lawyers like the new president of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, who as a “baby academic” had one of her first articles published by the journal some five decades ago.

Yet Lady Hale is not our only claim to fame. A perusal of the archives shows our pages are filled with household names from law and politics. Jeremy Corbyn; Sir Keir Starmer QC; Robert Buckland QC; Lord Falconer; Sadiq Khan; Jeremy Wright QC; and, most recently, Lord Neuberger have all written for or been interviewed by SJ. And, just like its earlier incarnations, the modern journal has not shied away from asking these legal luminaries the big questions of the day – issues pertaining to Brexit, human rights, the legality of drone strikes, legal aid, and access to justice, the latter of which has been a core issue for the journal almost since its inception.

On 25 April 1903, the journal took issue with renowned barrister Sir Harry Poland’s letter to The Times describing the Poor Prisoners’ Defence Bill – which would empower the courts to grant legal aid to a prisoner of insufficient means – as “absolutely unworkable”. “There are, no doubt, hundreds of young solicitors in London who are not overburdened with business and who have plenty of time to undertake the defence of the poor,” wrote the journal in reply. “We maintain that justice demands that poverty should not deprive a man of that help.”

Times may have changed but the journal has held to the ideal that access to justice should be for the many, not only the few. As the lights go out and the presses stop for us, we hope other like-minded legal publications continue that argument in the years to come. At a time when fake news and clickbait journalism are all pervasive, high-quality legal reporting – the kind that gives lawyers a voice, sees beyond ideology and rhetoric, and builds a bridge between the profession and the public – is vital. That is what Solicitors Journal has excelled at and what it will be missed for in the years to come. Perhaps that will be its legacy. That and the impact it has had on each and every one of us who has had the privilege to write, edit, and commission content for this wonderful, old title.

From its mysterious first editor (whose identity is lost to the annals of time) to William Mitchell Fawcett, John Mason Lightwood, Joseph Menzies, Sir David Hughes Parry, JR Perceval Maxwell, Thomas Cunliffe KC, John Passmore Widgery, Philip Asterley Jones, Neville Vandyk, Julian Harris, Judy Hodgson, Marie Staunton, Sue Hart, Andrew Towler, Jennifer Palmer Violet, Kevin Poulter, Laura Clenshaw, and the current team under Jean-Yves Gilg, we have all just been passing through, but we’ve all taken a little bit of SJ with us.

John van der Luit-Drummond, deputy editor

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjoural.co.uk | @JvdLD

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