A Celebration of the Life of Rodney Stewart Smith
Mary Chater
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A Celebration of the Life of Rodney Stewart Smith

Yesterday a service was held to remember the remarkable life Chancery barrister

Obituaries |

The death has occurred on Wednesday 21 September 2022 of Master Rodney Stewart Smith, a barrister at New Square Chambers and a Bencher of the Middle Temple. He was someone with two complementary qualities, which are perhaps rare in any walk of life, and certainly in the legal profession: he was at one and the same time a prominent and tireless contributor to the affairs of his profession, but also unusually self-effacing. So unassuming was Rodney, through and through, that his family knew comparatively little of his life in the Temple or of the huge affection and respect in which he was held there.

Rodney was born on Friday 17 July 1942; he was educated at Winchester and at Cambridge where he read law.
His administrative efficiency was well-known even at school. He was Senior Chapel Prefect whose duty was to ensure that younger schoolboys were in chapel on time. If one arrived late, he would always be there to note their name. He was much too nice to exact any penalty, but those whose names were thus noted tended never to be late again.

Having been Called to the Bar by the Middle Temple, Rodney undertook pupillage and spent his entire career in the distinguished chancery chambers, originally at 1 New Square and subsequently (after a successful merger) at 12 New Square. Among the former members of those chambers were Sir John Arnold, later President of the Family Division of the High Court, and Sir John Waite, later a Lord Justice of Appeal. Among his contemporaries were Sir James Munby, also later President of the Family Division, Eben Hamilton QC and Edward Bannister KC (later a judge of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal).
Rodney’s career at the Bar exemplified two traditions, well-known within the profession but less well-known outside it.
The first tradition was that, despite his expertise in all forms of chancery work, he, like many another junior barrister at the chancery Bar, never took silk. For those in that exceptional category, their standing and reputation was such that to seek the rank of QC was simply unnecessary. The second tradition was that he soon developed the habit of lunching at his Inn of Court, the Middle Temple.
Sir Andrew Longmore, a fellow Bencher of Middle Temple and lately a much-respected member of the Court of Appeal, recalls the days when they lunched together:
‘One thing stands out in my mind. This was the admiration of my pupil-master, Robert Goff, for the best chancery practitioners because, as he put it, they know all the Equity, but they know all the Common Law as well. He instanced Christopher Slade in his generation, but for my generation it was Rodney. For years I lunched at the same table in Hall, and all one’s legal questions were answered, and problems miraculously solved. When I had a garage to sell, he even taught me to do my own conveyancing.’
Sir James Munby remembers that Rodney was formidably knowledgeable and learned in land law and equity, and because he was almost always right, members of chambers, from the youngest to the most senior, constantly turned to him for advice on those occasions when they did not know or were unsure about the answer. Despite the constant stream of people coming to his room to benefit from his wisdom, he was always welcoming – immediately putting aside whatever he was working on to help a colleague. Colleagues invariably left his room reassured by his calm and measured response and confident, because he seemed always to be confident in himself, that they now had the right answer.

Rodney’s popularity within his chambers was encapsulated in some remarks made by his New Square colleague, George Laurence KC, at a celebration to mark Rodney’s 80th birthday on Sunday 17 July of this year. George pointed out that what makes a man admirable does not always make him loveable, and vice versa. Rodney Stewart Smith, he suggested, was the exception to that rule, his extraordinary intellect and knowledge of the law being animated and powered by his equally extraordinary human heart.

In a paper which Rodney himself gave shortly before he died, he pointed out that much had changed in his 56 years at the Bar, but that the importance of the collegiality of a set of chambers remained. He commented that his years at the Bar had taught him that, paradoxically, barristers are both highly resistant to radical change, and extremely good at embracing and profiting from it when it actually happens. In another paper, he revealed his acute sensitivity to modern conditions when he pointed out that, when he started at the Bar, it was undoubtedly much easier than it is today, although certainly not easy, for citizens of relatively modest means to assert and protect their civil rights in the courts. As he said, ‘I can feel proud of many changes which have occurred in my professional lifetime, but not of that’.
Within the Middle Temple, Rodney served on the finance committee for many years, but above all he became an expert in advising on, drafting and interpreting the statutes and regulations of the Inn, a task which he performed with such skill and enthusiasm that in 2014, when Master Igor Judge was Treasurer, a new office of ‘Master of the Statutes’ was created for Rodney. He has been, to date, its only office holder.

Rodney was for decades among the most loyal friends of the Temple Church. As a Wykehamist, he only regretted that he was too young to have known Budge Firth, Master (Vicar) of the Temple 1954-57, who had been a don at Winchester. Rodney became a quiet but unfailing supporter to subsequent Masters and to the whole congregation. Come rain or shine, Rodney would be at Matins or Evensong, and was always willing to read, at the shortest notice, a lesson, in his gentle, thoughtful voice. It was only in the last two years that he was at last appointed to the Church Committee, where his fathomless knowledge of Middle Temple’s statutes and of the Church’s history stood the whole of the Temple in good stead. Just one passion would draw him inexorably away from Sunday’s service: a Test Match, from which he would give a quiet but enthusiastic account on his return from Lord’s or South Africa or beyond.

As regards his passion for cricket, in a speech he gave at Middle Temple in 2011 when he occupied the ancient office of Autumn Reader, he told a series of wonderful stories, including one which he quoted from Neville Cardus concerning a village umpire known to everyone as George. Cardus had referred to the following extract from the Laws of Cricket: ‘before the commencement of the match, two umpires shall be appointed, one for each end.’ According to Cardus, as quoted by Rodney, it was widely acknowledged that George, from the moment when he first read the Laws of Cricket as a small boy, understood this Law to signify ‘two umpires shall be appointed, one for each side.’
As for Rodney, when he spoke about umpiring in his Reading at Middle Temple, he put it this way:
The difference between a good umpire and a great umpire really comes down to people skills and life skills. We can all know laws, we can all know playing conditions, we can all enforce them like a policeman. But the difference lies in being able to communicate, to be able to resolve conflict, and to deal with issues as they come up. When I look at the good umpires of my time, and I take key attributes from them, it is the ability to build relationships, to have professional dealings with the people that matter within the game, to be able to manage a game of cricket, and manage a professional entertainment package, realising that it is not just bat and ball.
It is, as Rodney astutely observed, not difficult to see in this also the essence of the definition of a good judge.

Rodney is mourned especially by his brother and sister and their children and grandchildren. The Temple Church will hold a service for him in the spring of next year. This was the service of celebration yesterday March 14th.
By all his friends and colleagues, he will be remembered as a uniquely serious and conscientious individual, who had at the same time a wonderful skill with words and a truly delightful sense of humour.

Master Stephen Hockman, Treasurer of Middle Temple, 2015

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