Judge Nick Crichton received the award of Honorary Doctor of Education on 27 February 2016, at the graduation ceremony of  the University of East London and The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. The award was to mark his contribution “to child and family welfare and to the development of problem-solving models of justice”.

Introducing the presentation, Steve Bambrough, Associate Clinical Director in the Children Young Adult and Family Services at the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“It is an honour for me to deliver this citation. I first met Nick when I stood in the witness box in his court in Wells Street nearly 15 years ago, giving evidence as a social worker in a difficult and painful care proceedings case in which a young mother lost her children to the care system. I had assessed the mother and Judge Crichton asked me about the likelihood of her receiving the mental health treatment she needed to live a less destructive lifestyle and be better equipped to care for her future children. He advocated with considerable intensity for those services to be found for her, and that’s what I did. I thought then that this judge was not cut from the same cloth as most judges.

His early legal career saw him practicing as a solicitor in private practice in North West London, with particular interest in child protection from 1971 to 1986. He was appointed as a District Judge in 1986, and in 1995 appointed to sit full time in family proceedings. He was closely involved in setting up the Inner London Family Proceedings Court at Wells Street, which opened in April 1997. There he was instrumental in creating a less hierarchical type of internal court layout (against opposition from some quarters in the system) so that families could feel more included.

Then, in 2006, I came across him in a different context, when he was leading the introduction of the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) service into England. Nick had been inspired by the work of Judge Len Edwards, an American colleague, and had visited the Drug Dependency Court in San Jose, California. On return to the UK, Nick lobbied hard, and with considerable tenacity, for a British equivalent of this court.

FDAC is a culture change of some magnitude in the justice system and is a radically different way of conducting care proceedings. It is a problem-solving approach to justice, a more humane way of doing justice when making decisions about children. Its aim is to try to get more children reunited with their birth family but, where that is not possible, to help the children get another permanent home more quickly.

But Judge Crichton’s achievements are not just in the UK. He is a Trustee of LUMOS, JK Rowling’s charity, whose objective is to get children out of institutions around the world and settled into families where they receive the love and individual care they need. He has worked for LUMOS in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Moldova and is due to take this work to Haiti later this year. He has worked in Bulgaria for 18 years, training judges and social workers.
His work was noticed by other governments and judicial systems and he has been involved in various projects training judges and social workers in Ethiopia, Namibia, the Cayman Islands, Russia, Georgia, Poland, the Ukraine and Greece, and he helped set up an FDAC in Melbourne, Australia.

While he has had much help and support from many professionals (some of whom are in the audience today) and institutions in his work, and in establishing FDAC, it would not have been possible to bring in this change without his influence and drive. In fact, that is one of the outstanding qualities of Judge Crichton – his energy, his passionate commitment to justice, and his considerable belief in the possibility of change in people and in institutions.

He was described by no less than the Daily Telegraph in May 2007 as a man who was “optimistic but not starry-eyed” and “inspirational” and I have seen recent photographic evidence that he can sky-dive (from an aeroplane) and seemed to be smiling broadly while doing so, which made me ask myself the two questions: how? and why? But this is typical of his style and his energy for life. He is a man I am proud to congratulate for the work he has done. He has impressed many people and is regarded widely with affection and respect.

In closing, I would like to tell you about a young woman who had been through the FDAC process because the very considerable difficulties in her life left her struggling to care for her child safely.

She said something very telling and profound this week when she was invited to speak to our Board of Directors and was asked about the role of the judges in the FDAC court. She spoke about Nick and she said that this man, who had the power to take her child away from her forever, was a person whom she remembered with fondness. And when she thought of him in response to the question, she could smile. And she noticed this as she smiled.

I think that is a tremendous credit to Judge Crichton. What greater testimony to him could there be, than that he could carry the burden and responsibility of such power and still be thought of with affection by that person who was, at that point, vulnerable and powerless? She succeeded in FDAC and she now cares for her child.”

Responding to the award, Nick said:

“It’s 49 years since I graduated and I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone. So I say to all today’s graduates: “Go out there and get stuck in”, because time will go very quickly for you, too.

I believe strongly that children are the most precious resource of any country and it’s wonderful to see so many in the audience. It won’t be long before you’ll be standing up here in your gowns and mortar boards.

It’s been a huge privilege to have worked in family law and child protection and to have learnt something new every day. It’s been rewarding in so many ways (other than financial) and we live in exciting times.

FDAC was and is contributing in different ways in treating people with problems who come before the court. Treating them with compassion, with empathy, with respect and with humility means that we have a far greater chance of breaking the often inter-generational cycle of drug and alcohol misuse and enabling children to remain at home or to return home. Because children belong with their families, in loving relationships that meet their emotional needs and where they receive stimulating care. That is FDAC’s aim and it is more successful than ordinary care proceedings.

I feel a bit of a fraud standing here because I can see wonderful people in the audience who have made FDAC. I planted a seed but made it grow into the beanstalk it is today. You know who you are!

It’s an exciting time because the government is beginning to wake up to the possibility of moving from a court system that is all about process, and often a punitive process, to one where we can harness the authority of the court to be part of a problem-solving approach to helping people overcome their problems. That must be a better way forward, and it is very welcome. In times of financial austerity, we have to keep presenting the additional argument that, in the long term, this new way of working can save much more than it costs to turn lives around. We need more interest in high places in cost-benefit analysis, not just cost savings.

So thank you so much for today’s honour, which I accept with gratitude and, I hope, some humility. And many congratulations to all the graduates, for what you have achieved so far and for the success you will have in the future.”