Following Derek McConnell's retirement, John Gallagher celebrates his distinguished legal career.
Derek McConnell, who retired from practice with South West Law last month, has been a mainstay of the legal aid world for 40 years. Derek qualified as a solicitor in December 1978, and having completed the LLM Welfare Law course at Leicester University, he joined Small Heath Law Centre, Birmingham, in August 1979. On his first day at the Law Centre, he was called on to help a tenant physically move home as a result of the landlord having neglected to pay his mortgage. Subsequently, he moved back to Leicester, and after some three years at Leicester Rights Centre, he helped to start up the new Law Centre in Sheffield. Sheffield City Council at this time had a clause in its tenancy agreements whereby it committed itself to provide homes ‘fit to live in’. This commendable aspiration came to figure prominently in Derek’s arguments on behalf of council tenants whose homes fell short of that standard.
In the late 1980s, Derek went to live in Bristol, and to work at Avon and Bristol Law Centre. Later, he would combine his work for the Law Centre with a half-time post at Southwark Law Project, and then with a new venture, the National Housing Law Service (NHLS).
By this time, he had developed a particular expertise on behalf of mortgage borrowers. In the early 1990s, Croydon LBC had the largest number of mortgage repossessions in England and Wales. Interest rates were high, second mortgage lenders thrived and arrears were commonplace. Through the NHLS, Derek set his sights on Croydon County Court, where he deployed an arsenal of sophisticated arguments on behalf of borrowers in defending possession proceedings and succeeded single-handedly in changing judicial practice. Armed with the successful judgments he had obtained at Croydon, he then took his arguments further afield.
Eventually, Derek took up a full-time post at Bobbetts Mackan, a large legal aid practice in Bristol, where he developed an immigration and asylum practice alongside housing litigation. He had a loyal following among the Gypsy and Traveller community in the south west, as well as ‘new age’ travellers, which made life particularly busy around the time of the Glastonbury festival.
In 2002, Derek, together with Frances Barratt, John Peake and Brian Cox, left Bobbetts Mackan to set up South West Law (Legal Services in the Community Limited). The purpose of the company was, and is, the practice of social welfare law. As in his Law Centre days, housing has been his life’s work, but immigration has also called him. Indeed, asylum and other immigration cases have dominated Derek’s casework in recent years, such is the demand for his services in that field.
The many seminal cases that Derek has conducted over the years include: Southern and District Finance plc v Barnes
(1995) 27 HLR 691, CA, the leading case on time orders under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and the court’s power to vary the terms of an agreement; Bristol City Council v Hassan  EWCA Civ 656
; July 2006 Legal Action
26, which alleviated the dismal doctrine of the ‘tolerated trespasser’; Bristol and West Building Society v Ellis (1997) 29 HLR 282
, CA, concerning the court’s power to postpone possession to give the borrower time to arrange a sale of the mortgaged property; and R v Northavon DC ex p Smith
 2 AC 402, which dealt with the duty of a local housing authority to respond to a request by social services for assistance in dealing with a homeless person. The last case saw Derek driving through the lanes of north Somerset shortly before the date of hearing in the House of Lords, on a mission to find his disappeared client, who was living in a van.
Derek has been a co-author of the LAG book Defending Possession Proceedings
, now in its eighth edition
, since it first appeared in 1987. In February 1988, the first of his annual owner-occupier articles appeared in Legal Action
and for the past 31 years he continued to produce them, until his final article in last month’s issue (page 36
). He has been a LAG trainer throughout his career, and has trained money advisers on mortgage repossession issues.
The introduction of a protocol for mortgage cases was a contentious affair, and the fact that it won acceptance owed much to Derek’s quiet determination and consensual approach.
Derek is one of the unsung heroes of the legal aid movement. His self-effacing nature will resist the tributes that are due to him, but few people have had such a profound effect on housing law and practice, to the benefit of borrowers, tenants, lawyers, money advisers, duty scheme advocates and the judiciary. Not content with that, he has provided a service in immigration law to the people of Bristol for many years. We in the LAG community wish him a long and happy retirement.