For the profession, VE Day marked one step on the return to normality.
Seventy years ago, paper rationing and other shortages had reduced the Law Society's Gazette to just 12 digest-sized (roughly A5) pages a month. But it still found space to report the great event of May 1945: 'that the Departmental Committee on the Law of Defamation, which was appointed in 1939, has resumed its sittings which were interrupted by the war'.
It was one of a series of notices marking a slow but determined return to normality after six very abnormal years. Chief among them, of course, was the announcement of VE Day. Under the headline ‘The End of Hostilities with Germany’, the June 1945 Gazette reprinted a Loyal Address to King George by the president of the Society, expressing congratulations on the successful conclusion of the war against Germany.
Similar congratulations were addressed to the prime minister, Winston Spencer Churchill. Perhaps with an eye to the next month’s general election, the message to the PM went on to note that the Society was 'deeply conscious of the strain which the responsibilities of his high office and the journeyings in fulfilment of his task have placed and will place upon him'.
Elsewhere, the Gazette reported that 27 solicitor candidates were standing in the July election: 11 for Labour; nine for the Liberals; six for the Conservatives and one 'Common Wealth' candidate.
Much space was devoted to procedures for release from the armed forces, following publication of a white paper setting out plans for demobilisation during what the government optimistically called ‘the interim period between the defeat of Germany and the defeat of Japan’. Reports of exam results included those who had sat the 'special intermediate examination' in German prisoner of war camps.
Another news item announced that 'fast air mail facilities' were available for solicitors wishing to communicate with clients serving in HM Forces in the Middle East and Central Mediterranean Commands. Correspondence was to be sent in an open envelope ‘to enable the censorship regulations to be followed’.
The classified section ‘Partnerships, Successions, Offices, etc., Wanted' was already sprinkled with ads such as ‘Solicitor (35), just released from RAF, seeks position with view to partnership…’. Many advertisers thought it worthwhile to include the words 'public school'. But in an indicator of the more egalitarian world to come, the Gazette noted the report of the Rushcliffe Committee on Legal Aid and Legal Advice in England and Wales, which, among other measures, recommended abolishing the term 'poor person' to denote those eligible for free advice.
One regular Gazette feature continued to appear much as it had done for nearly six years. June's Roll of Honour contained 10 names. It would continue to appear monthly long after hostilities ended, many entries including the heartbreaking phrase ‘previously reported missing’.
VE Day itself was a public holiday, and even the austere presiding judges at the High Court announced a suspension of sittings. Lord Merriman, president of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, observed that, despite the blitz, it was the first occasion since the outbreak of hostilities on which the work of his court had been brought to a standstill by reason of the war.
‘Even in the cellar shelters, when at the worst it was necessary for the courts to adjourn, English justice lost none of its traditional dignity,' he is recorded as saying.
'The damaged and destroyed courts, the ruins of the Temple, the damaged Law Society’s buildings and the solicitors’ offices in which work was valiantly carried on in the face of imminent danger bear witness to the part played by lawyers and judges alike in warding off the greatest conspiracy of evil in history.’
Merriman, who had begun his career as a solicitor's articled clerk, said such resilience provided 'a striking repudiation of the old saying that amid a clash of arms the law was silent, and rightly may be regarded as symbolic of the purpose for which this country had taken up arms'.
Seventy years on, those slim, yellowing copies of the Gazette generate mixed emotions. (They are available in the library in Chancery Lane; just ask at the desk.) My postwar generation, effortless beneficiaries of everything from polio vaccines to the Beatles to the 1980s housing ladder, should be profoundly grateful we weren't around in 1945.
All the same, it must have been good to walk with giants.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor