Nicholas Crichton, a former teacher in Kenya at Pembroke House School and the district judge who helped the most vulnerable families in the country by founding the UK’s first family drug and alcohol court, has died of lung cancer aged 75.
He was one of the most influential family judges of his generation and the pioneer of the specialist family drug and alcohol courts that have transformed the chances of keeping together families where one or both parents have addiction issues. The innovation has demonstrated the potential for the judicial system to play a wider role in problem-solving.
Born in 1943 in Buckinghamshire, Nicholas was the younger son of film director Charles Crichton, best known for comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda, and dancer Vera Crichton.
After excelling as a wicketkeeper and a fly half in rugby at Haileybury & Imperial Service College near Hertford, his headmaster encouraged him to study law at Queen’s University Belfast.
However, after graduating in 1963 before pursuing a legal career, he took up a post as a schoolmaster at Pembroke House School in Kenya, later travelling to Montana where he worked as a cow-hand on a cattle ranch in the Rocky Mountains.
Qualifying as a solicitor in 1070, two years after working as an articled clerk at Currey & Co solicitors, he joined Nicholls, Christie & Crocker in 1972 because he wanted to practise criminal law, becaming a partner in the firm two years later.
He met his wife, Department for Education civil servant Ann Jackson, on a blind date and they married in 1973 before settling in Penn, Buckinghamshire where their two sons; Simon is senior vice-president of a recruitment company and Ian is a marketing consultant, were born. The couple divorced in 2008.
Establishing his reputation in crime and child care proceedings, largely supported by legal aid, his most high-profile case came when he was instructed on behalf of Metropolitan Police SPG officers during the 1979 inquest into the death of the anti-racism campaigner and activist Blair Peach.
In 1986, Crichton was appointed as a metropolitan stipendiary magistrate (now district judge) and became the first in the country to deal solely with family law cases.
After realising that the “criminal milieu” of magistrates’ courts was unsuitable, he helped to set up the Inner London and City family proceedings court, the first magistrates’ court designated to deal only with family cases which opened in 1997 with six courtrooms. The new court had 13 legal advisors, and a panel of 160 lay magistrates available to hear cases five days a week with judicial benches replaced with desks set in a circle, carpets and comfortable chairs. A playroom full of toys helped to alleviate anxiety and Crichton remained there as resident judge until his retirement in 2014.
He was a member of the Family Justice Council from 2004-14 and chaired its “Voice of the Child” sub-committee, receiving awards for outstanding achievements at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year ceremony in 2011 and for his outstanding contribution to family law at the Family Law Awards.
As well as being trustee of the Pause Project, a voluntary programme set up in 2013 for women who have experienced, or are at risk of, repeat removals of children from their care, Crichton was named the Law Society Gazette Legal Personality of the Year in 2014, two years after being appointed CBE.
He also became involved in similar projects around the world, including in Russia, Ukraine, Namibia, Ethiopia and Haiti. He was also a trustee of the JK Rowling founded charity Lumos, which aims to get children around the world out of institutions and settled into families.
Away from his work, Crichton directed his natural empathy and energy both to his family and the community. He was a life member of Penn & Tylers Green Cricket Club, where he coached the colts on Thursday nights employing incentives such as “lollipops for catches”.
Shortly before his 69th birthday in September 2012, he met widow Jane Maskell, who had lost her husband to cancer. They were married two years later.
Nicholas Crichton, Kenyan teacher, district judge and family lawyer, was born on October 23, 1943 and died on December 16, 2018, aged 75. He is survived by his second wife, Jane Maskell, whom he married in 2014; by two sons, Simon and Ian, from his first marriage, to Ann (nee Jackson), which ended in divorce, and by five grandchildren.