Jenny Roberts – Obituary

Published: 18/06/2024 13:42

A photograph of Jenny Roberts

On 13 June 2024 a packed Lady Chief Justice’s Court was the scene of affectionate tributes to Mrs Justice Roberts, known to all as Jenny, who died on 10 June 2024. The sadness evident on that occasion and in writing an obituary for Jenny is mingled with the pleasure of recalling such a fine and lovely person.

Jennifer Mary Halden was born on 3 March 1953 in Southampton. She spent her early years in Sudan. After leaving school she did not follow the conventional route to the Bar: instead she did some work as a model and for Island Records. Jenny married Richard Roberts when she was only 18, and brought up her two daughters in the family home in the Hampshire countryside. She then obtained a first-class degree in Law at Southampton University, and was called to the Bar.

In 1988 Jenny became a pupil in what were then the Chambers of Roger Gray QC in Queen Elizabeth Building. Starting at the age of 35, she might have expected to be the oldest pupil, but she was younger than two of her fellow pupils. Lavender Patten practised at One Garden Court and later went to Hong Kong with her husband Chris, the last Governor. Caroline Beasley-Murray, already a JP, recently retired after 20 years as HM Coroner for Essex.

Not long after starting her pupillage Jenny was on one of the trains involved in the Clapham Junction crash, in which 35 people were killed. Fortunately, Jenny was not on the part of the train on which she usually travelled, and so she survived, unhurt.

Jenny was the overwhelming candidate for a tenancy in QEB, and was duly taken on as a tenant at the end of her pupillage. It did not take her long to build up a most impressive practice at QEB in both financial and children work. Later she concentrated on big-money cases. It was either Thomas Brudenell or Roger Gray who first called her ‘Duchess’; an affectionate nickname, reflecting her grace, elegance, good looks and perfect manners. Anyone taking over one of her cases would find completely helpful and legible notes, handwritten with a fountain pen; and the case in apple-pie order, provided Jenny’s advice had been followed. Jenny had, like most very successful barristers, an appetite for hard work, excellent judgment and complete command of the facts of her cases. What stood out from other high-flyers were her invariably unflappable manner and evident care for the client, which inspired total confidence from people often battered by their experiences of divorce. Solicitors, senior and junior, warmed to her and had complete confidence in her.

Jenny became a Recorder on the Western Circuit in 2000, after only 12 years at the Bar. Though very much a family specialist at the Bar, she was well able to tackle criminal work and she produced some impressive written judgments in a range of civil cases.

Jenny took silk in 2009. 15 years later the glorious white trouser suit Jenny wore to her silks’ party is still remembered. She was appointed a Deputy High Court Judge in 2011. After a long, difficult and fiercely contested financial hearing before Jenny, who was sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge, both counsel told me (in separate conversations) that Jenny had heard the case superbly. A QC in whose divorce she acted confided in me: ‘I have such a high opinion of Jenny: to me she has practically god-like status.’

Somehow Jenny always had plenty of time for the many fellow members of chambers who went to her immaculate room, seeking her help with their professional difficulty. Often there would be two people in her room at the same time, queueing up for her advice. And whenever a child of a member of chambers came to QEB, the most visited person in chambers would be Jenny, who gave the warmest welcome.

‘Is she really a granny?’ said my then 12-year-old daughter to me in 2012, just after we had left Jenny, who had mentioned her grand-children in the conversation. ‘She seems too young.’

On 3 June 2014 Jenny became a High Court Judge assigned to the Family Division, replacing her former Head of Chambers, Sir Paul Coleridge. Four weeks later she was hearing the case which led to the biggest reported lump sum award to that date (US$530m, about £330m): Cooper-Hohn v Hohn [2014] EWHC 4122 (Fam). The interlocutory judgment in respect of a reporting restriction order on the husband’s fallback submission was 177 paragraphs. Just as she had begun the Cooper-Hohn case, Jenny was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctors recommended immediate chemotherapy. Jenny’s first thoughts were for the parties. So she heard the case, and only then began the chemotherapy and started to write her judgment. The judgment is reported at [2015] 1 FLR 745–837. It ran to 310 paragraphs.

Because of the seriousness of her condition and its implications for her ability to sit as a judge, Jenny offered her resignation to the then President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, who refused it, enabling Jenny to have a ten-year judicial career, for the great majority of which she was able to work full-time.

Sir Nicholas Mostyn’s entertaining and affectionate tribute to Jenny in his online Daily Telegraph obituary asserted, specifically in relation to despatching an inflated needs claim in Juffali v Juffali [2017] 1 FLR 729, that Jenny employed a ‘literary style reminiscent of Cicero’s’. He commented on her following a Family Division predecessor with ‘Proustian-length judgments’. To which one might respond ‘Quae ista impudentia?’ (Cicero: Ad Verrem II.4.) Jenny’s judgments were comprehensive, clear and unpretentious. Certainly, they could have been cut without risking criticism from the Court of Appeal; but at the cost of the side losing the point feeling that their evidence or argument had not been fully considered. She preferred to deal carefully and fully with the case in front of her and to leave historical excursus and guidance to the profession to others.

Along with her financial remedy work, as Family Division Liaison judge on the Western Circuit, Jenny heard difficult public law cases, and she ran the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguarding list. Does anyone who knew her doubt that Jenny could deliver a succinct and full judgment in a difficult case? If so, they should look at the 14 paragraphs setting out her ex tempore judgment, quoted almost in full, when the Court of Appeal upheld Jenny’s order in parallel proceedings in the Court of Protection and Family Division, declaring that a young man with severe learning difficulties should not be permitted to travel with his family to Afghanistan last summer (J v Luton BC [2024] EWCA Civ 3).

When seeking to justify the effect on the children of publicly permitting the reporting of the family’s travails, as opposed to the previous longstanding practice of anonymising first instance decisions, a senior family judge relied on the multiple Old Testament references to the effect that the sins of the fathers are to be visited on the sons. One could never imagine Jenny thinking along such lines.
After receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer in September 2023, Jenny made the same resignation offer as she had made to his predecessor to the current President, Sir Andrew McFarlane. He too refused it. She continued to work as much as she could. She was still attending judges’ meetings and supporting her mentees as and when her cancer treatment and condition permitted.

Jenny’s husband Richard died in 2004. One of her two brothers, Ian, an RAF Officer, was killed in a flying accident in 1991. To the end of her life she had a close and loving relationship with her daughters and six grandchildren, and with her brother Simon.

After Jenny’s death, many solicitors have contacted QEB to pay tribute. There have been many references to her kindness, good example, elegance, eloquence, sense of fun, compassion, courtesy, and her exceptional qualities as a barrister and judge.

A solicitor wrote:

‘She always knew just what to say in an FDR to get the parties to be sensible – the wonderful phrase “time for that elegant gesture”. I also loved that she brought a bit of Chanel to the Western Circuit!’

A silk from a rival set commented that even a notoriously irascible silk from his set could be calmed down by her.

A Lord Justice of Appeal described Jenny as a:

‘wonderful colleague in QEB and in the Family Division. A wise, careful and considerate judge. A great loss.’

Three days after Jenny’s death in the Lady Chief Justice’s Court, the Lady Chief, who had known Jenny since they were Bar Finals contemporaries 37 years earlier, summed up Jenny:

‘Beautiful on the outside; beautiful on the inside.’

From HHJ Edward Hess, Chair of the FRJ Editorial Board:

‘Everybody whose path crossed Jenny’s will share the same positive thoughts about her. We are very pleased to publish the affectionate piece above from Oliver Wise, who shared chambers with Jenny for many years at QEB, which sincerely captures just how well she was regarded by those close to her professionally. Having got to know her a little when I worked with Jenny for several years on the Western Circuit (when she was FDLJ and I was DFJ for Wiltshire) I would like to add my own brief words. Jenny somehow managed to combine writing substantial judgments in difficult money cases in London with tireless leadership work in the South West. With half a dozen or more DFJs (and no doubt many others) seeking her guidance on an almost daily basis on numerous issues, she always responded to an email with an amazing promptness and often called on the phone to discuss the issue with a personal touch. Not only was the response prompt, but it was given with full and proper consideration and sensible reflection. Perhaps even more important than that, I never saw her respond to anything without the utmost calm, patience, friendliness and charm, which always inspired loyalty, affection and warmth. I very much share the view that she was a remarkable human being and it was the good fortune of all of us that she chose to devote her professional life to the cause of family law.’

Oliver Wise

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