I was hardly prepared for the experience of Liverpool in 1965. After an upbringing in central London and boarding at a minor public school, three university years in Merseyside, together with a year spent in the Sudan with VSO, radically changed my perspectives. It was not that I rejected the Christian faith that I had embraced as an adolescent – I did not – but it was radically reimagined in my professional life.

Determined that the focus of my practice would be on the issues that affected people at the bottom of the social pile – housing, care proceedings, family law, personal injury and, inevitably, crime – in 1971 I joined a minor set of chambers in Liverpool. Very eccentric it was, Rumpole would have been quite at home. Living in one of the poorest parts of Liverpool for over 45 years and being both foster and adoptive parents, we have sought to immerse ourselves in what I saw as my vocation and where my partner found hers.

Part of the vocation was to persuade people that the law could be a friend and not just a threat to them. I discovered this most in the field of housing law and we developed new procedures for housing repairs in Liverpool, for example, that became quite efficient.

Life at the Bar and in chambers then was, no doubt, unrecognisably different to what it is now. Perhaps I was lucky, blind or both, but I was blissfully unaware of almost all the issues which have achieved prominence today. I was head of my (by then much bigger) chambers from 1983 to 1992 when I became a Circuit judge and thus left the Bar. A sense of collegiality provided us with resilience as did an open-door tradition: anyone was free to seek help from anyone else. Those strands have also applied throughout my judicial experience. Collegiality and the open door were for me allied to a clear sense of vocation.

In many ways this involved swimming against the tide – certainly my choice of work had financial implications – and also swimming out of my depth. That latter sense became more profound as I became more senior as a judge. My impression is that my experience and skills better equipped me for judicial office than for the Bar. I thoroughly enjoyed and never regretted my 21 years at the Bar, but I found greater personal satisfaction in the judicial role.

The world looks very different from the Bench and can feel very lonely. That is why collegiality and the open door remain so important. One of my key mentors on the Liverpool Bench was a distinguished member of the local Jewish community and devoted to Liverpool. I asked him one day what he would do if invited to become a High Court judge (that’s how it happened then) and he said – ‘I know I couldn’t refuse; that’s why every day in Shul I pray that no one will ask.’ They didn’t, perhaps to family law’s loss.

I have always needed new challenges whether expanding my range of speciality at the Bar or sitting part-time as a judge, and that continued on the Bench. Five years as course director of family law for the Judicial Studies Board (as it was then known) was hugely rewarding, as was the day-to-day work as more and more of what had been considered High Court work was decanted to the Circuit Bench.

Although I enjoyed my appellate sittings, I discovered that my true love was being a trial judge. I was delighted to be made a High Court judge and being able to exercise the extraordinary discretionary powers committed to such judges in the Family Division and Court of Protection.

I soon learnt how much our technical expertise as a society had seriously outrun our ethical skills. We were often dealing with the depths of human fallibility and depravity and on the very borders of medical technology. In my field of work, it was necessary to remind yourself that most of what happened in your court was truly exceptional and not what generally occurred in the real world. That was, for me, the striking difference between being a Circuit judge and a High Court judge.

One thing struck me early on: the conflict between protection and promoting autonomy. Frequently the two matters pull in opposite directions. I was one of the original judges in the Court of Protection when it was set up in 2007. I had two cases of people wanting to die either by suicide or by refusing treatment. All my instincts were protective. Yet the true question was: whose responsibility was this decision? Or, more technically: had the presumption of capacity been displaced? In both cases I decided that it had not and both died. They were only two among a number of phone calls informing me of a death pursuant to a decision of mine.

To try such cases requires humanity, clarity and resilience. Some required qualities are gifted and some are acquired: it helps to know which is which. Humility is a good judicial attribute.

There is, at the end of the day, only one justification for having judges. That is, that they bring binding and authoritative resolution to disputes between citizens or between citizens and the state. This is the justification for the authority that we have and the flummery (much of which I confess I enjoyed) that goes with it. I have often been part of learned discussions and been left thinking that it’s all very well to have fascinating conversations but judges have to make actual decisions on real facts.

What I feared most about being a trial judge was not being conned by the dishonest (as that is probably inevitable from time to time) but not accepting a truthful witness. In a contested hearing over, say, a child’s injury, there are in court those who do know the truth but the judge is not one of them. The judge is not only constrained by the evidence but is also required to make a decision even if recourse has to be had to the burden and standard of proof.

It is crucial, at least in my areas of expertise, that the judge’s life is anchored somewhere other than in the workplace. In my case, family and faith community have provided critical (in both senses!) support and my children’s failure to share the world’s view of my august status kept me firmly linked to reality. The true benefit of this became apparent when I retired. Certainly, I went from being a senior High Court judge on 10 January 2013 to being a private citizen the next day, but all sorts of opportunities opened up through earlier, if loose, connections outside the workplace. I have relished my retirement and hope to continue to do so, even having reached 75 and thus unable to continue with any judicial work. 

As society becomes more complex, so does the law. However, law cannot provide for every circumstance and so its application often involves the exercise of discretion. In a society where judges have perhaps greater effective power than ever before, Sir Mark’s aim in The Modern Judge: Power, Responsibility and Society’s Expectations is to be frank rather than scholarly about judging (LexisNexis: 2016).