Nigel Roberts Pays Tribute to John Emms on behalf of Lawyers in Local Government

Publish date: 17/05/2021

LLG are saddened to announce the loss of John Emms, a central figure in local government law and practice for many years. Author of Local Lawyers: Public Practice - Solicitors in Local Government 1947-2012, John began his career at Nottingham in 1971. He held a number of roles with LLG's predecessor entities including the National Executive Committee. He was a member of the Local Government Legal Society Trust and was heavily involved with the Yorkshire and Humber Branch. In later years, he was the Honorary Members secretary, organising yearly lunches for those who had retired from practice. In this item, Nigel Roberts pays his personal respects to John, on behalf of LLG and local government lawyers everywhere.

This journey upon which we all embark is oftentimes monochrome and mundane, but it can also be packed with dazzling colour, interest and adventure. Just occasionally, and not very often, someone out of the ordinary crosses our path. If we're lucky, we are blessed to walk side by side with them for a while. Occasionally, our worlds will occupy the same space for longer periods. And if we're really, really lucky, someone utterly extra-ordinary will walk with us and share the same orbit for a while.

My old friend John Emms was one such bloke.

We first met in the mid-1990s, at the Law Society's Hall in Chancery Lane, when I joined the Executive Committee of the Law Society's Local Government Group as its International Officer. I was shy and in awe back then, and I'm ashamed to say it now: but I was intimidated. I was intimidated by John. I absolutely should not have been, because when you got to know him, you couldn't wish for a warmer, more genuine friend.

His reputation as a colossus in the world of local government law preceded him. And I could tell at first glance, as soon as he walked in the room, that here was a giant amongst men.

It was a year or two before I was able to feel comfortable in his presence, and to count him as a friend. This, I suspect says much about me and my own limitations. It most certainly is not a reflection on John. With him based in Yorkshire and me in the West Midlands, opportunities to spend time in each other's company were few and far between. Most of our liaisons were at Chancery Lane, for quarterly Law Society Local Government Group executive business.

But there were also weekends up and down the country, every Spring, on the occasion of LGG Weekend Schools, the stuff of legend. And it was here that I got to know John much better.

One of my clearest memories is of the sharpness of John's wit. Always ready with le mot juste, sometimes in the plural form but always with an economy of vocabulary that would make any editor proud, the timing of the delivery was always exquisite. How I would love to have seen him cross-examining a hostile witness!

As all will know, John was a writer of renown. In the very fine canon of his literary creativity, his master-work Local Lawyers: Public Practice must surely rank amongst the very finest. The sheer enormity of the task in collating such a vast amount of data and anecdote from a myriad of sources (and which of us were not asked to contribute?!), then moulding the whole into a learned, cogent and hugely readable treatise would be way beyond the capacity of mere mortals. But with John's fingers at the keyboard there is magic between the covers of this lovely, affectionate tome, a most fitting celebration of the concept of public service. I know all of us feel hugely grateful to our dear friend for articulating with such erudition something that is very close to our hearts.

Many of us feature in the pages of this book. Inter alia, John did me the enormous honour of quoting verbatim my reference in a National Executive report to my belief that the role of the local government lawyer includes a duty 'to be the voice of the disenfranchised and the forgotten' (ibid, 240).

It says so much about the code by which John led his life that he then commented thus –

"That, I think, reflects on a deeper basis, the fulfilment which many of us get from having public service, rather than profit, as the prime motive for going to work" (ibid, 241).

There can be no higher calling, and no greater tribute to the ethics and integrity of this lovely man.

Elsewhere between these covers is to be found a myriad of priceless examples of his sharp wit and gentle ribbing. I say 'gentle', because his asides were only ever delivered with the warmth and affection of a metaphorical, barely perceivable wink. Here is one such, with me on the receiving end. After reciting an anecdote or two gleaned from an e-mail I sent him concerning life on the road and cross-border travel as International Officer and Chair, he concluded –

"… which demonstrates:

I had to look that last one up. I've always loved a semi-colon; and I never realised I'd got it so spectacularly wrong, as I do here. Thus I stood corrected, not in belittlement, but only with the gentlest of digs in the ribs. For respect and warmth were always the easiest of companions with John's integrity.

On the day he finally hung up his boots and exited stage left from the LGG National Executive, the Fates decreed that the chair was mine for his very last meeting. I've emptied box after box out of the garage in a fruitless search for the tribute that it was my great honour to deliver, but of course I can't find it. The one thing that I can vividly remember saying, however, is as reported elsewhere by another dear old friend and colleague, Roger Bowden, who recalls me saying that John was 'the best Chairman we never had'.

This remains as true today as the day upon which I uttered it, and I can still picture John's face as I did so, with absolute clarity. I think he was a little embarrassed. "Shut up you silly sod" might have been his unspoken thought.

It was ever a joy to have John's wisdom to hand in debates and discussions. It was treasure beyond rubies, and a Chair's dream. He never spoke unless he had something interesting, penetrating and relevant to say, and only ever when he judged the moment to be right. In this and in all things, John's judgement was perfect, his timing exquisite, and his contribution invaluable.

Let it be a comfort to us all that it is John's integrity that shines still and always will, a beacon of clear, pure white light. He knew what mattered, he knew what was important and he precisely knew the route of the line that must never be crossed. I forget who wrote "ethics are what we do when nobody is watching", but it could have been the man himself. His unswerving commitment to an ethical code of the very highest standard is a minimum to which all would do well to aspire.

After he left the Executive, my encounters with John were primarily limited to weekend schools (and as Roger Bowden hints elsewhere, oh those tee shirts!), a milieu in which he excelled. After my own retirement, we only ever met at the annual old lags' lunches that it was his pleasure to arrange. After these became too much for him, our liaisons were limited to exchanges on Facebook, sharing anecdotes, vignettes, stories and just occasionally variances of opinion. We rarely disagreed on anything. Even when we did, it was impossible not to respect the position he took, coming as it did only after deep thought, consideration of every side of the argument, and a conclusion reached with logic, proportionality and common sense.

Dear, dear John. All of these qualities, ones that were yours in abundance, were never needed more than today.

When all is said and done, and when the final race is run, how would each of us like to be remembered, I wonder? Fondly of course. And against that background, let there be not one scintilla of doubt that John will be remembered with enormous affection, and with ready smiles. He was a thoroughly decent human being. A man of enormous integrity.

And it seems to me that when the final tally is made in the great ledger of life, there can be no finer entry on that bottom line than to be remembered as a thoroughly decent human being.

Dear, dear John. I shall miss your mischievous wit, your common sense and the power of your intellect more than words can say. 'Amen to that', doubtless rings the chorus. But your race is now run, and other adventures await.

What would you say, I wonder, if you could read this personal remembrance, and the many other affectionate tributes currently being penned the length and breadth of the country by your friends, comrades, and colleagues? You wouldn't believe a word of it, I suspect. You'd want people not to be so daft.

And here we meet yet another endearing Emms quality. John, you were always the very epitome of modesty, almost to the point of diffidence. There was no side on you, mate.

I cannot finish without reference to the fortitude, bravery and dignity displayed by our dear friend in abundance during his final years, when the challenges he faced were beyond cruelty. But he has now cast off those shackles, for ever. And if there is such a place, he is tripping the light fantastic across a celestial, amdram stage somewhere, just outside the reach of mortals, but somewhere close at hand. I'd very much like to think that he is.

Until we meet again, I shall take solace in the thousand and one snapshots of our liaisons that will pleasantly haunt my memories for always.

And very best of all, every single time my digit hovers over the semi-colon on my keyboard, I shall chuckle.

So long for now, Big Man.

Nigel Roberts

May 2021