Manchester Legal Awards: Family lawyer who campaigned for no-fault divorce wins lifetime honour

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A family lawyer who helped lead a campaign to introduce no fault divorces in England and Wales has been honoured for his lifetime’s work at the North’s biggest legal awards.

Nigel Shepherd, of Mills & Reeve, was last night presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Manchester Legal Awards.

Hundreds of members of the North West legal community gathered at the Midland Hotel for the black tie event to honour colleagues working in fields from criminal law to family and employment law.

Mr Shepherd was a popular winner of the Lifetime Achievement title, which honours individuals who have had “an unrivalled impact and lasting contribution to the legal services market in the region during their lifetime”.

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Other winners included Brabners, Eversheds Sutherland and DWF.

Mr Shepherd was twice the national chairman of Resolution, the national association of famiy justice professionals, where he helped push for vital legal reforms.

In their citation for Mr Shepherd last night, the awards judges said: “Reforming divorce law has been a professional and personal mission for most of his career. In his first stint as chair, he led Resolution through the highly charged political debate that resulted in the Family Law Act 1996, which would have introduced no fault divorce but was never implemented.”

Resolution at that time had just one staff member – so Mr Shepherd persuaded members to fund lobbying and PR support through a levy on top of the membership fee.

The judges said: “As a result, the organisation was able to punch well above its weight and make a significant contribution to the passage of the legislation. It also represented a step change in the organisation’s profile and influence.

“Nigel accepted the invitation to become chair again primarily because he and Resolution saw no fault divorce, and other key issues of law reform, as unfinished business. In his last two-year term at Resolution, he continued to promote the arguments and be the key spokesperson for change through the print and broadcast media, briefings with politicians, communications with members and through his membership of the advisory board supporting Professor Liz Trinder’s Finding Fault research.”

In 2018 Mills & Reeve successfully applied for Resolution to intervene in the widely reported Supreme Court proceedings of Owens v Owens, which revolved around the interpretation of so-called “unreasonable behaviour”.

While Mrs Owens did not get her divorce, the case was a catalyst for change as the Supreme Court called on Parliament to take action. As a result the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 – which removes fault from the divorce process – was passed and was implented on April 6 this year.

Legal scholar Professor Liz Trinder has said: “During his two stints as national chair of Resolution, Nigel has been an absolutely tireless campaigner to support the development of both good family law practice and good family law. He has done so with good humour, endless enthusiasm and passion. I can’t think of anyone who has done more to try to secure divorce law reform in this country.”

Mr Shepherd said: “I came up for what was then Manchester Polytechnic in 1975,did my degree, met my wife in the first term, and we liked it here so we stayed. Most of my life has been here, compared to being in the south where I was born.

“Since then I have seen the industry change phenomenally, the profession is really different now. I mean, I started off in a very small two partner firm doing my training in Gately, then I moved to a well known firm called Slater Heelis, and I did all kinds of litigation work.

“I did criminal work, family, commercial litigation, I did some prosecuting for the department of social security. So, I’ve always done family, I started to do more and more of it and in the end I ended up specialising entirely in family law.

“I started specialising in family law work increasingly and then I moved to do nothing but family law when I came into the city centre in 1993, and I’ve stayed since.

“I’ve always had an affinity with family law and I really enjoy the work. I started to not enjoy the criminal work as much as I had done in the early days.

“It became more difficult, the legal aid situation became more difficult. I still thoroughly enjoyed the court work, but I gravitated towards doing more and more family and then I got this opportunity to become a partner in a city centre firm so I took that and that was it.

“I’ve always been heavily involved in the national family justice group called Resolution. I became a member of that in the mid 80’s. It was founded in 1982 – so early days.

“I was involved in the original steering committee in Manchester to get the regional group set up and then I became one of the early regional chairs of Resolution.

“Then I stood for their national committee, which is like their board, and got onto that, and then I eventually worked my way up becoming national chair in the mid 90’s.

“I was heavily involved in that. I led the organisation through a campaign for ‘no fault divorce’, and that was in the mid 90s. We got the legislation, but it was never implemented. So I remained on the board of Resolution and still committed to trying to get this big change in the law through and I accepted the invitation to become national chair again in 2016 – the only person to have done it twice.

“I did it very much because I saw ‘no fault divorce’ as unfinished business and we felt that we could get it through. We carried on the campaigning and eventually we got the ‘no fault divorce’ legislation passed in 2020 and it got implemented on the 6th of April this year.

“So, we have succeeded in changing the law, it’s the most significant change to divorce law for half a century.

“It means that we’ve now got a new system of divorce for anybody starting from the 6th of April, which doesn’t need blame attached at all, it’s just a notification.

“One person, or for the first time ever, both people, can jointly do it. There doesn’t have to be alleged adultery, no unreasonable behaviour allegations, none of that blame game.

“It gives people a much better chance of hopefully keeping the temperature down and getting a better chance of sorting things out, which is the big objective.

“Resolution members try to reduce conflict, to promote settlement and remember that people are still parents even if they’re not going to be together anymore. If you can reduce the temperature you can give people a better chance of sorting things out amicably.

“It’s been very much a team effort, but I’ve kind of spearheaded it so I’ve been given this kind of nickname of Mr ‘no fault divorce’. It’s been a team effort, lots of support, lots of people helping including the staff team at Resolution.

“I always thought we might get it but I wasn’t sure it was going to be whilst I was still professionally involved in the Law or still actually alive and kicking. I really wanted to get it done before I retired, I really wanted to see that through so it was great that we did.

“It’s a real honour to receive this award. If you look at the sort of people who have received it in the past, there are some really big names of the Manchester legal scene so to be in the same ballpark as them is a real honour and a privilege.

“It’s my hometown, it’s my professional home, so to get that recognition from your peers is particularly special.

Mr Shepherd said wanted to pay particular thanks to “the firms, particularly at Mills and Reeve, have been incredibly supportive because I was a partner in the firm and they accommodate me becoming a chair at resolution again in 2016”.

He added: “We worked in a way that I could do that, and made space for all the work and campaigning I was doing. As a firm, we are deeply committed to resolution – all of our lawyers are members and so we’re very supportive of it, we believe it’s the right way to practice.

“Resolution members, resolution committee members and the staff team – couldn’t have done it without them. Fantastic effort.

“And my family, they’ve been putting up with me banging on about this for about as long as my daughters have been alive, and it’s an indication of how much they invested in it.

“When we heard that the legislation was going to go through they bought me a hoodie with ‘no fault divorce’ written on it.

“You can’t do this kind of stuff on your own, without that support, it just wouldn’t have been possible.

“It’s a really nice bookend to my career, I was really young when I started this off in the early 90’s, so to see it through over 25 years later, it’s just nice to feel kind of as though my work is done.

“I’m still a consultant with the firm, I have what some might call a portfolio career now, but retirement is much more relaxing. I’m playing a lot more golf, I still play football and I play piano a lot more now that I have more time to do it.”

Last night’s awards were organised by Manchester Law Society, with Interlink as principal sponsor. BusinessLive’s sister title the Manchester Evening News is media partner.

Paul Johnson, president of Manchester Law Society and a partner at Ward Hadaway in Manchester, said: “Yet again, this year has seen us receive a huge number of submissions and the standard has been truly exceptional. The quality of those submissions is testament to the fact that the Manchester legal profession is thriving and we all have much to celebrate and be proud of.”

Winners at the Manchester Legal Awards 2022

Business Support Champion/s of the Year Award

Sponsor – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP

Winners – Charlotte Dixon, Mills & Reeve AND Laura West, Anthony Collins Solicitors

Trainee/Paralegal/Apprentice/Legal Executive of the Year Award

Sponsor – Manchester Metropolitan University

Winner – Jonathan Holling, JMW Solicitors LLP

Solicitor of the Year Award

Sponsor – Harbour

Winner – Moe Yassin, Beyond Law Group

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Champion/s of the Year

Sponsor – Appleyard Lees

Winner – Brabners LLP

Corporate/Commercial – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Interlink Recruitment

Winner – Eversheds Sutherland LLP

Highly Commended – Pannone Corporate

Crime – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Matrix 247

Winner – Slater Heelis

Highly Commended – Burton Copeland LLP

Employment – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Matrix 247

Winner – Leigh Day

Family – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Shard Capital

Winner – McAllister Family Law

Litigation – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Quantuma

Winner – Weightmans LLP

Highly Commended – Brabners LLP

Personal Injury/Clinical Negligence – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – RMS PR

Winner – Stephensons Solicitors LLP

Private Client – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Five Wealth Ltd

Winner – JMW Solicitors

Property – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Landmark Information Group

Winner – Eversheds Sutherland LLP

Highly Commended – Fieldfisher LLP

Regulatory – Team of the Year Award

Sponsor – Manchester Evening News

Winner – DWF Law LLP

In-house Team of the Year

Sponsor – Quiss Technology

Winner – Bank North

Highly Commended – Boohoo Group plc

Barrister/QC of the Year Award

Sponsor – Manchester Law Society

Winner – Dr Christopher McNall, 18 St John Street Chambers

Partner of the Year Award

Sponsor – Legmark

Winner – Vikki Woodfine, DWF Law

Barristers’ Chambers of the Year Award

Sponsor – Weightmans LLP

Winner – St John’s Buildings Chambers

Law Firm of the Year – Small (1-5 partners nationally)

Award Sponsor – Lawshare

Winner – Olliers Solicitors

Law Firm of the Year – Medium (6-20 partners nationally)

Award Sponsor – MFL Insurance Group Ltd

Winner – Beyond Law Group

Highly Commended – CFG Law

Law Firm of the Year – Large (20+ partners nationally)

Award Sponsor – Harbour

Winner – TLT LLP

Lifetime Achievement Award

Sponsor – inCase

Winner – Nigel Shepherd, Mills & Reeve



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