I need a hero
A planning issue at work leads to a lifelong friendship for Marilyn Stowe
It never occurred to me that expanding my office from a small converted ground floor cobbler’s shop in East Leeds into the flat above would attract the local authority’s wrath.
One day, I received an official notice advising me to cease operations upstairs as I did not have the requisite planning consent. It was accompanied by a refusal of planning consent. There followed a negative telephone conversation with the planners which necessitated an immediate appeal so that my colleague (in one room); I (in another room) and our photocopier – along with a newly arrived fax machine on the upstairs floor – could continue as before.
By now, I had become quite well-known for family legal aid work in the area. I ran it alongside an entirely different commercial law workload via recommendations from my family.
I had trained in commercial law, successfully dealt with the sale of a trademark owned by my father’s company and enjoyed the no-holds-barred challenges commercial litigation presented. Some of the work was international. I used to smile as I faxed top firms of lawyers worldwide who had little idea of my setup.
To put it mildly, I was running a diverse practice while the other solicitor happily carried out the loathed conveyancing. But the refusal of planning permission was a spanner in the works.
I turned up to the appeal having instructed John Altman, a local barrister, to represent me. When it became clear that a lack of parking was the planner’s main issue, I had the first of several ‘rabbit out of the hat’ moments in my career.
I had with me a copy of the title deeds. I studied them hard, while my barrister was talking to the planners who were determined not to budge. It became apparent from the plans that we actually owned a grassy area alongside the office. I offered to turn it into a car park. They refused at first, but the barrister calmly persuaded them to agree.
Work began immediately. Our local builder put up a distinctive crazy-paving wall around the side of the car park to attract attention beside the pillar box red frontage. It looked smart. Both the secretaries cum receptionists, by now fed up with running to the top floor to send or collect faxes, moved upstairs in celebration. I took on a full-time receptionist and life went on stressfully but triumphantly.
Then one day, I arrived at the office and noticed that our distinctive crazy-paved wall had vanished overnight. I decided to look for it but didn’t have to look far. Behind the parade were rows of run-down terraced houses with dirty red brick walls – except for one which was sporting a new crazy-paving wall.
“Nice wall”, I said to the occupants who were outside chatting to the neighbours as I walked by. They glared at me. I decided to say nothing more about it. My wall was replaced.
As for John Altman, he became my hero and went on to far bigger and better things, becoming the senior designated judge for London. He was based at the Central Family Court in Holborn just around the corner from where my London office was eventually set up.
Whenever I saw him after the planning victory, I would curtsy low and say: “Your Majesty”.
On his retirement, my husband and I attended a drinks party which he held at court. As always, I curtsied, and he took it all in good part as I winked at him. Then he was swept away by the great and good of the family law judiciary who were also there celebrating his illustrious career.
Marilyn Stowe is the retired founder of Stowe Family Law