Family lawyers are not trained to deal with the situation I am about to describe. It is for this reason that I have delayed writing this post, wondering if I should write it at all. I have decided to do so because, even when you least expect it, something tragic and terrible can unfold. We shouldn’t ever think it won’t.
Some weeks ago now, spring came with a burst of sunshine to Harrogate. The day was perfect and as lunchtime approached, I decided to go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of a Yorkshire Spring day. I set off past Bettys teashop, down the hill past people sitting outside little cafes having lunch, past the Royal Pump Room and into the Valley Gardens. There, I walked through the formal, tree-lined avenue, up onto the grass where it becomes wilder and more beautiful, through the woodland and out the other side. Then I continued onto Harrogate’s famous Stray. The cherry blossom trees along the pathways were in their brief bloom. I kept going, not wanting to lose a second, until I had walked the Stray’s entire perimeter in the sunshine. It was the most beautiful, perfect walk. An hour-and-a-half later, I was back at my desk.
At exactly the same time, in another part of the country, one of the firm’s clients was meeting a violent death. Discovered in her home with a stab wound to her chest, she was treated by paramedics but died at the scene.
I learned the terrible news the next day. The entire office was in deep shock, not least my partner who had conduct of her case. Family lawyers are professionals equipped to deal with all manner of situations but, I will frankly admit, not this. In all the years I have been in practice, I have never experienced such a situation.
I can’t help but think about how, while I was strolling in the glorious spring sunshine, this pleasant, intelligent and much-loved woman was spending her final moments on Earth. As difficult as it has been, however, we have all had to come to terms with the fact of her death.
We know that death comes to us all. Just as most of us don’t like to spend time contemplating it, however, lawyers may all too readily assume that it won’t happen on their watch, to their clients. For example, there are words of advice that our solicitors give to all our clients, as a matter of routine. We tell clients to make a will, and to change that will when circumstances change. We make sure they know that with the grant of the decree absolute, a former spouse will not inherit – even if the will has not been changed. We advise them to consider severing the joint tenancy if there is a jointly owned property, and to think how property should legally be transferred on the sudden death of a spouse. The executors of a deceased client’s estate do not step into the client’s shoes and, if no order is in place, the client’s case for a financial settlement ends on death.
However we never, ever, imagine – except perhaps when we are prepared, because of the circumstances of the case – that a client could really die while a case is still in progress. Our scepticism is supported by the statistics, which show that such an event is extremely rare. I have now discovered, for the first time in my career, that it can and does happen.
Somehow it seemed fitting this year that for our annual Passover holiday in Israel, we did not go to Eilat, my much-loved favourite by the Red Sea. We went to Jerusalem. Every day I stood on the balcony of our hotel and thought of our client, as I looked towards King David’s Tower. The tower stands proud and tall by the walls of the Old City, beyond which stands the Kottel, the Western Wall, which is all that remains of our Jewish Temple. Our client’s pointless, tragic death had cast a giant shadow over me and, I will readily admit, I was looking for solace.
I told myself, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away”, and immediately Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) came into my mind. I don’t know if our client was a religious woman but I found that this Psalm, written by King David himself, provided me with the words of comfort for which I had been searching. I pray that our client will be able to rest in eternal peace.