Born: West London

Education: Notting Hill and Ealing High School; King’s College, London – LLB, 1970

Career: Trained and qualified in 1973 at Lawford & Co, London, Assistant solicitor, Darlington & Parkinson, London, 1973-74, Solicitor, Camden Community Law Centre, London, 1974-78, Assistant solicitor, Wilford McBain, London, 1978-79, Set up Children’s Legal Centre (now Coram Children’s Legal Centre), 1979-81, Assistant solicitor and then partner, Bindman & Partners, London, 1982-96, Partner, Goodman Ray, London and Brighton, 1996-2002, Consultant partner,  Osbornes Law, London, 2002-

Roles: British Association for Adoption and Fostering, Law Society’s Children Panel, Law Society’s Children Law Subcommittee, Resolution Foundation accredited panel, Coram Children’s Legal Centre, patron, 2013-

Known for: Awarded Law Society president’s Lifetime Achievement Award 2020

The legal world has changed beyond recognition since consultant family lawyer and adoption and surrogacy specialist Naomi Angell embarked on her 50-year career in the law. ‘In the early 1970s I was just one of a handful of women training to be a solicitor,’ she recalls. ‘[We] were constantly knocking against the glass ceiling.’ This was the era when female lawyers had to be wary of wearing too much jewellery – ‘a discreet pair of earrings was just about acceptable’. And once Angell began appearing in court, she found herself mired in the controversy over whether women could appear before the bench wearing trouser suits.

Not for the only time in its history, English law found itself lagging behind English society. This was in the immediate aftermath of the swinging 60s, let us remind ourselves, when women’s hemlines grew shorter and men’s hair longer. Full frontal nudity appeared for the first time in the mainstream theatre (Hair opened at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in September 1968). The nation’s mums and dads were bemused by psychedelic rock and by their daughters’ infatuation with effeminate-looking, dope-smoking men dressed in velvet jeans.

By this time, homosexuality had been partially decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act 1967, but only for the benefit of men having sex with another man. Gay women were not liberalised by the act, as Angell attests: ‘In the 1970s, I had cases where women separating from their husbands and coming out as gay would lose their children in a custody dispute, regardless of the welfare [of the children].’

Fast forward to 2021 and Angell reports that she has seen ‘dramatic changes in the concept of family and adoption law. Now heterosexual two-parent families bringing up their own birth children exist alongside families with cohabiting gay or straight parents, step-children and half brothers and sisters. Children have been adopted, fostered or born by surrogacy or assisted reproduction into straight, gay and single parent families’.

One positive Covid spin-off is that, with so many lawyers working from home, employers have come to recognise that a more family-friendly work structure with good IT is possible

Naomi Angell

Naomi Angell

Evolution of children’s law

Children’s law has come of age during Angell’s 50-year career and she has played a significant part in its evolution, both through her own caseload in private practice and through roles on, among other bodies, the lord chancellor’s 1996 advisory group on family law and the Law Society’s Children Law Subcommittee. It was her active involvement in the shaping of children’s law, including legal issues around adoption and surrogacy, that persuaded the judges to award Angell the Law Society president’s Lifetime Achievement Award 2020. But where did it all start?

‘My father believed that women should have a vocational qualification, in my instance the law,’ she replies. ‘I secured a place at King’s College, London, but in truth found reading for a law degree boring. It was only in my third year, when I began volunteering with the Release drugs helpline, that I began to see the possibilities that legal practice opened up for me.’

Release, founded in 1967, offers non-judgemental advice about drug use and campaigns for drug users to be treated according to the principles of human rights, dignity and equality. At the same time that Angell was volunteering with Release, she and some fellow students at King’s began a legal advice surgery, giving free advice to those who otherwise could not afford it. And after July 1970, when the country’s first law centre – North Kensington – was established, she gave her time for advice sessions there. Her volunteering did not stop at law centres, however.

‘During my articles, my flatmate was a detached youth worker in London’s East End. Detached, in this context, means that the youth worker goes to where the young can be found in their own territory, such as parks and other shared public spaces. It means going out to the problem, rather than waiting for it to come to you. I began accompanying her, becoming a “detached” legal worker, supporting her work to help youngsters who have fallen into a life of crime.’

Angell had not neglected her career progression during these years of volunteering. She completed her articles at London trade union firm Lawford & Co, qualifying in 1973, before spending a year as an assistant solicitor at another London firm, Darlington & Parkinson. It was there that she met the ‘visionary’ Alured Darlington, who was spearheading the development of the law on domestic violence.

A five-year (1974-1979) spell at Camden Community Law Centre was next on Angell’s agenda, where she represented and advised people on the full gamut of legal problems. These were not only housing, employment and benefits law issues, but also what was to become her area of specialisation – children’s law and care proceedings. ‘There was no real children’s law in those days,’ she comments. ‘There were no guardians and the whole system was antiquated and burdened by inflexible bureaucracy.’

An Unforgettable CASE 

In Angell’s 50 years of practice, are there any cases that are particularly moving and memorable? She replies: ‘It was during the Romanian orphanages crisis, when the world was learning the true extent of late president Ceaușescu’s neglect of children. He had banned contraceptives and abortions in a bid to increase the population of Romania. His exploited people, however, could not afford the expense of larger families and many children were admitted to state-run orphanages.

‘The conditions in these orphanages defy description. There was no sanitation, no toys for the children, no stimulation. Just cots and their strangely quiet infants.

‘A woman, who we’ll call Suzie, while on a Blue Peter-inspired project to the orphanages came across an 18-month-old child with a cleft palate. The child was one of twins and was not going to have an operation to repair her palate because she was HIV positive. The other twin was luckier and was going to have the operation.

‘Suzie, who was only 19-years-old, resolved to adopt the twins. There was a happy ending. When they were nine-years-old they got to meet the judge who had finalised the adoption and the twins’ right to remain in the UK. I saw them smartly dressed, sitting on the judge’s chair, trying on his wig and everyone laughing.

‘The judge confided that it was one of the few fun moments he had experienced in his judicial career in family law.’

Welfare law charity

Where more appropriate to move next than to south London firm Wilford McBain, the country’s first dedicated children’s law practice? While there, she accompanied the firm’s founder Michael Wilford to a meeting convened to discuss the establishment of a children’s welfare law charity. ‘The meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour of establishing the Children’s Legal Centre,’ Angell recalls, ‘which we achieved in 1981. We amalgamated with the Coram group of charities in 2011, becoming the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, but our core common goal remains working through the medium of the law towards improved chances for vulnerable children.’ Angell became patron of the legal centre in 2013.

The 1980s were significant for Angell in another way, too – that was the decade that she and her husband, the Labour party’s solicitor since 1990 Gerald Shamash, adopted their three children. ‘It was a master class on how to do adoptions,’ she says. ‘I saw first-hand how social workers were constrained by the rigid social requirements of matching children’s ethnicity to that of their prospective adoptive parents. How can that possibly work in a multi-cultural melting pot of a city like London, where there is such a diversity of religions, skin colours and nationalities?

‘Changes in the law are always tortuously slow and it is quite random how an issue which has been parked by a previous administration will hit the political agenda again. Successive children acts, while stressing that the child’s welfare was paramount, had no real impact on adoption. We had to wait until 2014 for the Children and Families Act.’

I saw first-hand how social workers were constrained by the rigid social requirements of matching children’s ethnicity to that of their prospective adoptive parents. How can that possibly work in a multi-cultural melting pot of a city like London?

This act repealed the requirement for councils to give ‘due consideration’ to children’s racial, religious, cultural or linguistic background when matching them with adopters. The act states that a child’s racial and cultural origins should be just one of the factors in a local authority’s search for the most appropriate adoptive family. The change was motivated by the government’s concern that this rule was causing Asian and black children to wait longer for adoption than white children.

The change, however, has not been universally applied by local authorities. Angell cites the 2019 case of a Sikh couple awarded £120,000 in damages after a local authority told them there was no child available for adoption matching their ethnicity and recommending that they went to the Indian sub-continent to try and find a suitable adoptee there. The couple, backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, successfully sued for discrimination on the grounds of race.

She also cites the experience of celebrity chef Prue Leith and Li-Da, her Cambodian adopted daughter. Li-Da, now in her 40s, and her husband decided that they wanted to adopt a British child. Angell says: ‘They were rejected twice by local authorities who had matched children with them, only subsequently to pull out because they had found a better ethnic match. And yet the law on same-race placements is clear both in statute law and in guidance. Race and culture should not be the paramount factor trumping all others, as appears to have been the case for Li-Da and her husband. Happily, the couple have now successfully adopted a child.’

Angell’s long experience of the legal and other issues around adoption has led her never to underestimate the challenges. ‘Adoption is different from raising a child from birth,’ she stresses. ‘Adopted children, whether adopted internationally or domestically, bring with them distressing early childhood experiences, such as loss, trauma, and damage from life in institutional care. There is also the bitter sense of rejection when their birth families had proved unable to meet their needs.

‘Add to that the question of ethnicity and adoptive families need not only to support their child in dealing with racism, but also to instil in their child knowledge, understanding, pride and involvement in his or her racial, cultural, linguistic and religious heritage.’

Surrogacy also brings unique challenges, particularly when Covid-19 restrictions are added to the mix. Ideally, the prospective parents of the child are present at the birth and are given the baby moments after it is born. Bonding between child and parents can then begin instantly, just as it does between child and birth mother where surrogacy is not involved. The pandemic, however, has led to many babies who were born abroad having to wait for the borders to reopen.

‘Many families having babies through surrogacy abroad will already have been through years of distressing and unsuccessful fertility treatment,’ comments Angell. ‘Now they must jump over yet another hurdle, with the constant fear that – because of the delay – the surrogate mother and child will have the time to form a crucial early attachment. The surrogate mother may then find it hard or impossible to part with the baby, even when the parents are permitted to come and collect the baby. This could result in complex cross-border litigation to decide on the child’s future, with inevitable distress and expense for everyone involved.’

In the 1970s, I had cases where women separating from their husbands and coming out as gay would lose their children in a custody dispute

Angell herself went down the adoption route, successful adopting her own three children, but as a consequence putting at risk her career in the law. She explains: ‘Juggling work and childcare is never easy and I was often close to giving up to care for my children full-time. But over the years I have been lucky enough to be able to work part-time in several firms.’ These included London practice Bindman & Partners, where she was a partner for her final 10 years there; London and Brighton family law firm Goodman Ray, where she was a partner; and her present firm, Camden and Hampstead, London practice Osbornes Law, where since 2002 she has been a consultant partner.

She continues: ‘One positive Covid spin-off is that, with so many lawyers working from home, employers have come to recognise that a different, more flexible and family-friendly work structure with good IT is not only possible – it is also cost-effective, is without detriment to clients, and results in more fulfilled staff with a reduced risk of burn-out.’

Drawing the interview to a close, the Gazette asks Angell, in the light of her 50 years in legal practice, what advice she would give to lawyers just starting out. She replies: ‘I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed almost every chapter of my legal career and still continue to do so. If you are also lucky enough to find something in your professional life that you love and believe in, then stick with it. Your passion will ensure that you do it all the better. In forging your careers, you should keep your eyes on that goal.’