Sir Brian Neill – A Tribute

Richard Susskind, the SCL President, offers his tribute to the Rt Hon Sir Brian Neill PC, a former President of SCL

It was with immense sadness that we learned our oldest member, Sir Brian Neill, passed away on Christmas Eve 2017, aged 94. Sir Brian was president of SCL from 1985 to 1992, a mentor to many members and an example to us all. He was the pre-eminent pioneer of court technology. But we remember him at SCL, above all, as a man of great kindness and wisdom. He was a fine physical presence too – perennially benevolent, of good height, with a shock of white hair, and a booming voice, at once mellifluous and commanding.

In 2003, to coincide with Sir Brian’s 80th birthday, Lord Saville and I edited a festschrift, entitled Essays in Honour of Sir Brian Neill: The Quintessential Judge. In our introduction, we wrote this: ‘Solomonically wise, prodigiously diligent, profoundly perceptive, unarguably expert and scrupulously impartial, Brian was indeed the quintessential judge’. I stand by these words.

In that book, we assembled a formidable team of legal minds to write about the two fields that engaged Sir Brian the most – legal technology and the law of defamation. The highlight, though, was the joint introduction by Lord Bingham (then Senior Law Lord) and Lord Woolf (then Lord Chief Justice). In an unprecedented joint tribute, they spoke of Sir Brian as ‘an advocate who was highly erudite, very intelligent, immensely well-prepared and so persuasive that it always seemed unreasonable to disagree with him’. They went on to speak of his distinguished contribution as a judge whose ‘court was a show-case for the British system at its exemplary best’. This was a glowing assessment from the highest legal authorities in the land.

The Rt Hon Sir Brian Thomas Neill PC was educated at Highgate School, London, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and was called to the Bar in 1949. He was appointed a QC in 1968, as a judge to the High Court (Queen’s Bench Division) in 1978, and to the Court of Appeal (and the Privy Council) in 1985, where he sat until 1996. According to Lord Lloyd of Berwick, in his affectionate and moving eulogy at Sir Brian’s funeral, this was his ‘first retirement’. He went on to sit for many years as an arbitrator and, from 1997, in the Court of Appeal in Gibraltar, of which he was President from 1998 until 2003 - his second retirement. In 2012, he retired for a third time when he stepped down after three years as Chairman of the Trustees of the Slynn Foundation.

Beyond the law, Sir Brian served with distinction as a Captain in the Rifle Brigade in World War II, and was one of the first soldiers to liberate the Belsen concentration camp. He was a long-standing contributor to the livery movement, a past Master of the Turners’, and Father of that Company from 2015. I have had the good fortune to meet his sons and grandchildren and it is clear, most importantly, that he was also a loving and loved family man.

As for the Society for Computers and Law, he was one of our founders. He attended the inaugural meeting on 11th December 1973 and was listed in the first roster of members as ‘BT Neill’, at that stage a QC at 1 Brick Court. His first published article on legal technology, on ‘The Lexis System,’ appeared in February 1975, in the third issue of Computers and Law (then a newsletter). Several years later, in the twentieth issue, in May 1979, as a relatively new judge of the High Court, Sir Brian laid out his initial thinking on judicial and court technology. In a typically self-deprecating and witty opener, he wrote that he had chosen to entitle his remarks ‘Computers and the Courts,’ because ‘it was a simple title and one which I could understand myself’. In that paper, he laid the foundations for decades of later effort in the field. For almost 40 years, Sir Brian led the charge for the modernization and digitization of the courts and the work of judges. His period as President of SCL set the bar ludicrously high for his successors. He guided us with a light touch, attended countless meetings and events (often with his delightful wife, Lady Sally) and all the while he led the field of legal technology, in thought and action, from the front.

Sir Brian’s commitment to SCL continued unabated even while in his nineties. When the dinner to celebrate Caroline Gould’s 25th anniversary with SCL coincided with a post-operative period for Sir Brian, he nonetheless made the trip to the restaurant, with great effort negotiated an imposing set of stairs, and joined the festivities with gusto. It had not been clear if he would be able to join us. When he appeared in the doorway, I could see it meant the world to Caroline. It brought tears to my eyes.

Sir Brian’s last attendance at an SCL event was on the occasion of the Online Courts Hackathon that we hosted in July 2017. Around 230 legal technology enthusiasts laboured for 24 hours and came up with a wide range of promising ideas for tomorrow’s court system. It was fitting that Sir Brian could enjoy the energy and euphoria of the second day. In many ways, the results of the Hackathon were the fruits of his own labour. As he sat in the front row and looked around, he seemed entirely content. He rightly sensed that his battle had been won. Our courts would indeed be computerized. His pioneering contributions to court technology had paved the way.

On a personal level, Brian was the finest of mentors, always available to advise and counsel. While others were inclining me to rein in some of my predictions and claims, it was he, more than any other, who encouraged me to be bolder when I wrote The Future of Law in 1996. We worked closely together in the early 1990s, when he was President and I was Chair of SCL. This was a great privilege. I was turning 30, and learned so much from him, not least about public speaking. Not once when addressing an audience did I see him consult a note, and yet every sentence was grammatically pure and every word was apt for the moment. Members will recall his after-dinner remarks at our 40th anniversary dinner, when, aged 90, for 15 captivating minutes, he notelessly commanded the Members’ Dining Room in the House of Commons.

He was also generous to me with his introductions, most notably, to Lord Mackay and Lord Woolf in the 1990s, which underpinned my later work with the Government and the Judiciary. More, he introduced me to the leaders of influential bodies, such as the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, through both of which we managed to raise awareness of the potential for technology in the law.

Computers aside, one of my fondest memories of Brian is of a telephone call in the mid-1990s. The phone rang one Sunday afternoon and my son Jamie, then 6 years old, answered and was chatting happily. I absently heard him talking excitedly about school, computer games, TV programmes, and so on. I assumed it was one of his friends. He was laughing away. After 10 minutes at least, I heard him saying, ‘would you like to speak to my dad?’ Alert now, I asked who was on the other end. ‘It’s someone called Brian Neill. He is very nice.’ It was wholly typical that this Lord Justice of Appeal, at the peak of his career, did not interrupt young Jamie in full flow. Instead he engaged affably and at length with a little chap he had never met. Sir Brian Neill had time for everyone.

On behalf of the Society for Computers and Law, I extend our deepest condolences to his sons, Andrew, Michael, and Richard, and to their families.


Additional tributes to Sir Brian Neill

From Lord Saville of Newdigate, former SCL President

Sir Brian Neill was a most remarkable man and I deeply mourn his passing. He was without doubt one of the greatest judges of his generation. But to my mind, above all, he was among the very first to see, some 40 years ago, that the justice system could benefit immeasurably from the application of IT. He worked tirelessly to promote its use. At the beginning many treated his ideas with scepticism or worse, but time has confounded his critics and proved him to be right. I remain very proud indeed of the friendship he generously extended to me.

From Richard Morgan, former Chair of SCL

It was a fortunate day for SCL when we met Sir Brian Neill.  I was one of those who had the good fortune to be Chairman during his time as President of SCL and I recall that his attendance at our meetings was exemplary and his interventions few but always brief and to the point. Many a waffly discussion was delicately nudged back to the real issues by a timely word from Sir Brian.

From Ruth Baker, former General Manager of SCL

Sir Brian was a huge influence on my professional life. I was privileged to have had his support, encouragement and friendship for nearly forty years.   We met in 1980 when Sir Brian was the Chairman of the National Law Library Trust and I was the General Manager. No matter how heavy his other commitments he always found time to see me once a week. 

In 1988 Sir Brian (President of SCL and Chairman of ITAC [Information Technology and the Courts]) appointed me as the first General Manager of ITAC.   Sir Brian’s firm hand on the tiller resulted in greater co-operation between the constituent bodies (and in the case of the Police, between the various forces).   

He was an extraordinarily appreciative, kind and thoughtful man (ringing to check that I had arrived safely back in Bristol if meetings ended late).   Amongst my most treasured possessions are his letters of appreciation and the card with the book “Treasures of Venetian Paintings” that he sent me when he retired in 1997 (we shared a love of art and in particular Venetian Art).    

From Caroline Gould, SCL Chief Executive

Sir Brian was very supportive when I took over the management of SCL, he was kind enough to call the SCL office to ask if there was anything he could do to help or if I needed anything (by this time he was 90).

He frequently attended SCL events including the annual conference, letting me know that he would attend by sending me an email saying “I shall attend - but maybe not all day”. His speech at SCL’s 40th Anniversary Dinner at the House of Commons was the highlight of the evening and gave SCL the opportunity to acknowledge his outstanding contribution to the Society.  No-one deserved it more. And as Richard says in his tribute, I was incredibly moved that Sir Brian came to the celebration of my 25th anniversary with SCL - just two weeks after having had heart surgery.

Sir Brian was generous and charismatic and I feel very lucky to have known him.

Published: 2018-02-21T09:30:00

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