The famous four
29 April 2002
It was one of the biggest moves at the family bar for years. In February, the highly rated matrimonial senior juniors Deborah Bangay and Ann Hussey and juniors Nichola Gray and Emma Summer upped sticks from respected common law set 29 Bedford Row and joined leading matrimonial chambers 1 Mitre Court.
When I eventually catch up with Deborah Bangay, the exuberant and renowned divorce and child lawyer is exhausted. During the interview, she unleashes several unconstrained yawns. She must yawn a lot because, as she informs me several times, on weekdays she works 9am to 5.30pm and then after making dinner (after football, cooking is next on her list of favourite hobbies) she works through to midnight. She also works a lot of Sundays, although she tries to have trials scheduled for Tuesdays rather than Mondays to avoid working weekends.
But despite having precious little time to do anything besides working, looking after her eight-year-old twins and supporting Manchester United, Bangay is in fine form.
She is very keen to tell me about her career, although reluctant to go into detail as to why she left 29 Bedford Row. She warns me at the start that her father is a photojournalist who has done the dirty on people a few times. There is something of the yarn-telling hack in Deborah, so she intends to be guarded about what she says. However, this reserve does not last long.
She tells me that during her path up the barrister profession, various obstacles got in the way of early success. She highlights male chauvinism and hostile women barristers who felt threatened by new female entries into the bar as being most to blame. Later, I make reference to one senior female barrister and Bangay almost spits the name back at me. Apparently she ignored Bangay in her early years. And as if to prove how different Bangay herself is, she stresses: "What you see is what you get. I'm not putting on an act for you."
Bangay has built up an impressive portfolio of cases. She represented the mother in M v H, a landmark case dealing with circumstances in which a court could make a costs order in private law. In the 2001 case W v W, she demonstrated that the husband's claim that the wife had made a negative contribution to the marriage was simply an unhelpful oxymoron. And in A v A & B v B she drove home the need for legal advisers to warn clients that judges could report them to the Inland Revenue for tax evasion.
It took Bangay three pupillages before she got tenancy. In 1983, two years before she started specialising in family law, she began work as a libel lawyer at the Daily Mail in order to supplement the income from her bar practice.
"I was moonlighting, doing shifts from 5.30pm-10pm. I was paid £300 a month, which paid the rent," she says.
She is used to fighting, and has just finished a battle of another kind - divorcing her husband, who is also a barrister. She says that the experience has been useful in helping build sympathy with her clients.
But maybe single life will suit Bangay, as she has always been something of an independent spirit. "When I was at school I knew I wanted to be self-employed. When I was 15 I read a pamphlet at school about barristers and I knew that's what I wanted to do," she says.
Football is Bangay's other passion. She is travelling to the World Cup in Japan and the experience will no doubt add to her existing list of impressive football stories. One particular story, which must have done the rounds of several Temple bars, is worth telling. Bangay, while out drinking with a sports journalist, managed to find herself in a room where the entire Manchester United football team, plus management, were having a soiree. "I looked up and there were Posh and Becks," she exclaims. She made her way back to another room, where she had left her reporter buddy. He was less than happy about busting back into the party with her, as Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had just given him an interview and he was loath to destroy the bridges he had built with him. However, after ruthlessly employing her well-oiled art of persuasion, they broke back into the party where they managed to go unnoticed until the end.
But while she loves football - there are four paintings of Eric Cantona next to her desk and a signed photograph of members of the Manchester United team after winning the 1999 European Cup - she is a devoted family barrister who combines fearsomeness and compassion in court.
"I feel I can make a difference in a case. But any senior junior with a large money [private divorce] and children practice works under huge pressure," she says. A printout of her diary shows she is booked up for months and she estimates that she has 50-100 cases ongoing. But this pressure certainly does not show. Apart from smoking several strong Marlboros, she appears relaxed and her tanned face is the picture of health. The latter is presumably the product of a recent holiday. She takes 12 weeks away a year, coinciding with her children's holidays.
Despite her passion for story-telling, Bangay describes her cases with cold objectivity and she chooses her words carefully. She is not a campaigning barrister and has little enthusiasm or time for becoming a member of the Bar Council.
After several amusing anecdotes about her court experiences - one involving a man in an ancillary relief case who dropped his trousers - and further analyses of Manchester United, we are joined by Emma Summer.
Emma and I chat in the more grandiose setting of a silk's room. She is clearly doing well. At just two years' call she has already decided to stick with family law, and is in the leading set for divorce and child work, both of which she specialises in.
"I have been instructed by firms which only instruct 1 Mitre Court [while at 29 Bedford Row] such as London firms Sears Tooth and Levison Meltzer Pigott," she says. Summer is the only member of the quartet to have applied to 1 Mitre from 29 Bedford Row, the others having been invited to join, and was attracted because it is a specialist set.
Bangay shares a room at 1 Mitre with the third member fo the quartet, Nichola Gray.
Besides matrimonial work, which is common to most barristers at 1 Mitre Court, Gray unusually does cohabitation work. It annoys Gray that there is no legislation in this area. "There is no statute around the division of assets while many people think there should be. Cohabitation causes the same problems when their relationships break down as married couples," she says.
Unlike Bangay, Gray, who was called in 1991, was not passionately drawn to family law. She studied international trade at university, but later realised shipping law was not quite the thing for her and fell into family law as she received the most instructions in this area.
She finds family work ebbs and flows. "For three days running I may just get four hours sleep, but my case for this week settled early so I have got some spare time to talk to you," she says. Family law is more about volume of work rather than high-profile or widely influential cases. Harris & Harris, about lump sum payments following a maintenance order, is the only case which springs to her mind which she acted on which she considers widely influential.
A few days later, I am cheered by an email from Bangay, who finally comments on her departure from 29 Bedford Row. "It was hard to refuse an invitation from the Manchester United of the Premier League!" she says. I take it the next time she has a spare moment, it will be spent watching Bend it Like Beckham.
Related BriefingsSign up for briefing alerts
Related CPD/EventsSign up for CPD/Events alerts
MBL Seminars Limited