Obituary: John K Miller, lawyer

Died: 13 April, 2015

Legal advisor to the Free Church of Scotland during a key constitutional battle

Many members of the Free Church were saddened to hear of the death on 13 April of John K Miller, late senior partner in the well-known Edinburgh firm of solicitors, Simpson and Marwick. Members of the General Assembly in Edinburgh last week recorded their respects and intimated their condolences to Mrs Sally Miller.

Simpson and Marwick were the solicitors responsible for the famous legal case, the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland v Lord Overton [1904]. This was part of a dispute between the Free Church of Scotland and the United Free Church of Scotland (having been formed by a union in 1900 of the majority of the Free Church with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland).

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The Free Church of Scotland was the minority of the pre-1900 Free Church who had remained outside of the union. The minority of the Free Church had refused to join the union and claimed that, in altering the principles of the Free Church, the majority had forfeited their right to its assets – in short they argued that the assets, which were very considerable, should belong to the minority, who were the true “Free Church”.

They lost their case at the Court of Session but, on appealing to the House of Lords, the judgment was reversed and they won their case. The practical ramifications of this victory were such that Parliament was forced to legislate a methodology for dividing the property between the two contenders. John Miller’s paternal grand-uncle, the eponymous James Simpson, had suggested that an appeal be made to the Lords against the finding of the Court of Session.

As the post-1900 Free Church did not have the resources to fund such an appeal they were persuaded to do so because Simpson prosecuted the appeal at the solicitors’ expense.

Indeed, John recounted how as a young lad he was on a family holiday with his father, Cyril Miller (also in Simpson and Marwick) in Sutherland. They had attended morning worship in Skerray Free Church and on the walk back to the hotel his father told him the heroic, David v Goliath story, of the little Free Church taking on the might of the United Free Church; how his grand-uncle had persuaded Simpson and Marwick to fund the appeal and how the case was won.

John said that this story inspired him to become a lawyer and it was therefore peculiarly appropriate that he should have been the Church’s adviser for so many years.

John was very proud of this connection and he thought that it was greatly fitting that he himself was the Free Church’s legal adviser in the another successful constitutional battle from the year 2000 (100 years later) over the ownership of Free Church property.

John was a lawyer of the old school, completely dedicated to serving his client, and he eschewed the modern practice of fee charging where every minute is charged into a computerised system to ensure that clients are billed to maximum value.

John Miller’s bills were usually brief and succinct – a quality also of his advice – and on the occasion when audit and propriety led the Church to ask for more detail the response demonstrated clearly that the Church would have almost certainly paid more, had the bill been constructed along the principles of modern legal practice.

With his family background it is unsurprising that John had a huge and unrivalled knowledge of Scottish Church law; he used this knowledge very wisely in the advice he gave the Free Church in the Free Church Continuing dispute at the end of the 20th Century.

At this time the Free Church’s very identity was being challenged by the Free Church Continuing, with the possibility that a successful challenge would lead to considerable loss of assets.

John gave wise, humorous and often witty advice. One such occasion was when the FCC’s lawyers wrote a letter with the subject heading: “Residual Free Church”. John felt that the term “residual” was presumptive of a legal battle not yet won and sent the briefest of replies, which simply stated: “Dear Sirs, We have no client of that name. Yours faithfully, John Miller.”

John had a slightly eccentric manner and character, which belied a clever and quick legal brain.

Once a complex problem was explained to him he would stare at his notes for what seemed a long time. Those unused to his modus operandi wondered what was happening and whether his thoughts had strayed to other things.

When he started to talk, it became apparent that in the silence he had been working really hard. He had started to analyse the issues, raising questions and posing scenarios that had not yet occurred to those briefing him. Those of us who worked closely with him developed an enormous respect for him and for the training and experience that enabled him to examine problems both quickly and thoroughly.

Apart from the Free Church Continuing litigation John encountered a range of issues around the business of the Church including of course the sale, purchase and lease of properties all over the Highlands and Islands.

As someone who fished rivers in the Highlands and Islands John knew the terrain and could usually visualise the property which required his attention, contribute some local detail and often carried in his head useful earlier legal history relating to it.

John succeeded Douglas Moodie from Simpson and Marwick in early 1990s and remained as the Church’s adviser until his retirement in 2008.

John was a very private person and although we colleagues in the Free Church guessed at a wide hinterland of interests beyond the law, we respected his personal preferences.

It was therefore both a delight and surprise that John got married somewhat late in life and the Church extends to his wife, their friends and family, its deepest sympathy at the loss of a very fine man, a lawyer of great integrity, a man of compassion and kindness with a fine sense of humour and a turn of phrase which reflected a soundly Scottish education of the kind that some of us think is vanishing before our eyes.

John was held in respect and affection by those with whom he worked closely and his passing marks the end of an era in the history of our Church.