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Celebration of Sir Gary Hickinbottom's appointment to the Court of Appeal - speech by Robert Bourns

Posted: 6 February 2017

President of the Law Society, Robert Bourns, delivered a speech to celebrate the appointment of Sir Gary Hickinbottom to the Court of Appeal.


Lord Neuberger, ladies and gentleman.

My name is Robert Bourns and I am the President of the Law Society.

Welcome to the Law Society of England and Wales for a celebration .

We celebrate, promote and protect the independence of the judiciary who so emphatically demonstrate that independence and the role of the rule of law.

We are here tonight to celebrate the appointment of Mr Justice Gary Hickinbottom to the Court of Appeal - only the second solicitor to have achieved this appointment.

We are proud of this achievement and it is right that we salute success.

Justice Hickinbottom will speak about his journey as a solicitor judge, so I will limit my remarks to highlight some perhaps less well-known facts about him - including his life as a solicitor in practice.

His achievements as a solicitor

Sir Gary started his legal life as a clerk in a high street firm, Challinor & Roberts, in Smethwick back in 1975. During his time as a clerk, he also read law at Oxford, achieving a first-class degree.

He trained with McKenna & Co from 1979-81 and then developed his career as a commercial litigator with CMS Cameron McKenna, becoming a partner in 1986. During his two decades in private practice he focused on advising large businesses on a wide range of contentious matters.

As a practitioner, he contributed to the wider debate on civil justice reform including case management of group actions. As a regular contributor to The Lawyer in the mid 90s he voiced concerns on proposals to modify costs and funding of group litigation and called on the judiciary for a ‘proper screening’ of these claims. He said that the reforms begged ‘the question as to whether it is fair to others if group claimants are given financial assistance despite the board deciding that it is unreasonable for them to take proceedings at public expense’.

He also noted the difficulties of group litigation, particularly in the pharmaceutical field. He argued that the claimant’s solicitor and the defunct Legal Aid Board had a shared onus to screen cases properly as ‘both sides need to address the real issues at an early stage’.

His pathway to the judiciary

But being a leading practitioner in the city was not enough for Sir Gary, in his own words he wanted a ‘a second career’ as a judge. Instead of pursuing this new endeavour through the commercial court route, he wanted to be closer to the people. He chose to start his alternative career in 1994 as a parking adjudicator gathering judicial experience and working his way up, a fact that has been widely reported in the press.

In his own words this was ‘a humble post, but one in which you are dealing with people at hearings’. He reported that this was a: ‘deliberate choice because it involved no representation, short hearings, immediate decisions - it was part of the justice system that involved dealing regularly with different members of the public face-to-face.’

As we know, his career in the judiciary went from strength to strength. He was then appointed as a recorder in 1994, continued as an adjudicator, and still worked in his firm - in his own words, ‘working the same hours as everyone else and bringing in as much money as anybody else’. It is reported that he used his annual leave days for his judicial duties, such as sittings in Wales.

As a result of Sir Gary’s hard work, dedication and evident ability, in 2000 he was appointed a full-time circuit judge and then became High Court judge in 2009. His appointment challenged suggestions that city solicitors were not able to become judges.

Throughout his career, Sir Gary experienced the whole spectrum of dispute resolution - hearing family, crime and civil cases. He was also judge of the Mercantile Court in Wales, was chief social security commissioner for five years and the first president of the Administrative Appeals Chamber of the Upper Tribunal.

Stories from the bench

However, his career on the bench has been every bit as unusual as his route to it. Sir Gary has rightly pointed out that in dispute resolution ‘we all have stories to tell: and we all have things to learn’.

Some examples of his most unusual work - he is the judge of the Supreme Court of the Falkland Islands. In this role:

  • He dealt with a criminal case involving alleged corruption by the chief of police in the islands
  • He has been one of only two judges ever to have heard a case on South Georgia [a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean]. The population of the island was 13 people, and a larger number of penguins. The case dealt with a license to fish for the Patagonian toothfish - a less than attractive, but valuable, beast.
  • In the same case it is reported he almost had to recuse himself for taking part in a treasure hunt on the island - the respondent (in the judicial review) was the organiser of the treasure hunt!

In a different case, while sitting in Wales, he was asked by a claimant to step down on the basis that the claimant was not convinced that he was Judge Hickinbottom, asking for photographic proof and saying that he would not proceed without it. Sir Gary held that the case would be heard under the ‘working assumption’ that he was who he said he was but if the claimant found evidence to support the proposition he could be given permission to appeal. The case did reach the Court of Appeal where the claimant failed to prove that ground - reassuring Sir Gary as to his own identity!

To conclude

To conclude, we want to congratulate Sir Gary on this achievement. Even though Sir Gary left private practice 17 years ago to become a full-time judge, he did not stop being a solicitor. The values of the profession have accompanied him throughout his career.

In his profile in the Judicial Appointments Commission website, Sir Gary said that the values of integrity and fairness, the ability to understand people and make decisions are central for a career in the judiciary.

Therefore, his appointment is both a testimony to the great skill he brings to the bench, and an example of the huge contribution solicitors can make to the judiciary. The profession has no shortage of talented solicitors who could and should consider judicial appointment and I hope that this event encourages many of you to follow this route.

We are grateful to you, Sir Gary, for allowing us the opportunity to share this event with you, sharing our pride in your achievement. We thank you also for the time you have given to the profession, encouraging others to think about extending their careers to consider a career on the bench.

It is typical of you that you wanted this celebration to include an event to further that awareness raising.

I am grateful also to other solicitor judges who have encouraged colleagues to think of this route.

Tonight we will hear from them.

I also wanted to celebrate those members of the profession achieving QC status this year. Of the six only one is able to join us - Adam Johnson QC - congratulations.