Reviewed by: Clare Rodway
Author: Emma Dally
Publisher: Hornbeam Press, Troubador
ISBN: 9780956523600
Price: £15

‘A man of contradictions’ – this is how he is described by his granddaughter Emma Dally, author of Claud Mullins – Rebel, Reformer, Reactionary – and she takes the reader through those brilliantly. One of the book’s greatest appeals is the way she brings out the human side of Mullins’ story and highlights the incongruities.

He was a man famed for almost a ‘collaborative’ approach to marital disputes, who challenged the legal system to encourage reconciliation between warring couples with children, rather than entrench them further into their battle positions, and who was responsible for establishing the first dedicated matrimonial court so domestic cases could be handled more sensitively within the judicial system: yet at the same time a man famously remote from his own family.

Indeed the author opens her book with a warm vibrant account of her memories of being looked after by her grandmother (which was often) but of a grandfather whom she always considered dull, and constantly irritated by the presence of children in his house, annoyed about his work, or his rest - always something - being disrupted: ‘He understood the importance of parental love, yet he did not take responsibility for the evident early unhappiness of ...his own children. ... He earned the nickname ‘Marriage Mender’ and strove to save marriages wherever possible, yet his own marriage only survived because...grandmother was prepared to put his reputation before her own happiness.’

It is only when Dally discovers and reads his diaries at the time of her grandmother’s death, years after his own death, that she comes to learn who her grandfather was for the first time. And very poignant it is, as the knowledge dawns as to what a giving, extraordinary, rebellious man he was – how revolutionary he had been in his field, challenging both the establishment and the established way of doing things; that he was a reformer and rebel by nature, driven to improve the status quo, to the point of upsetting colleagues.

As a magistrate he was unafraid to speak out about the need for reform, particularly on the legal system’s handling of matrimonial issues and also on the question of imprisonment for civil debt, and this sometimes resulted in bitter conflict with the legal establishment - even to the extent of formal campaigns to gag him, his colleagues at the bench invoking the magistrate’s ‘duty to administer the law without giving public controversy...and to avoid public criticism of their colleagues’. But he would persevere where his conscience convinced him.

The issues that Mullins concerned himself with in the area of domestic disputes are just as alive today: how to manage the legal issues in the context of family breakdown in the best interests of all concerned, and most particularly of any children involved, and avoid the adversarial nature of litigation from making matters worse. Only this Autumn we have the Ministry of Justice’s Family Justice Review consultation, and all eyes will be on the interim report next Spring. This shows just how far Mullins was ahead of his time.

The writing is not only warm, bringing out the human side of Mullins’ story, but pacy; the language is tight, concise and Dally has a real eye for colour, constantly highlighting detail, ironies, idiosyncrasies that keep you turning the pages.

One other observation: this book is presented to appeal to readers already interested in Claud Mullins, who know his work in this field and are interested to know more. Given that divorce law reform is still so high on our social agenda, surely there is an opportunity to present the same material to an audience who may know nothing of Mullins; couched as a book on, for example, ‘divorce reform past present and future’, new readers could have been hooked in to this fascinating story about Mullins, his life and his work – and would have been the richer for it.

Clare Rodway is Managing Director of Kysen PR