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04 Aug 2023

In memory of John Fordham 1948 – 2023


It is with great sadness that we announce the death of John Fordham.

John was widely regarded by those who worked for, with or against him as a force of nature. He was a man of extraordinary energy and passion with a character larger than life, his booming voice audible across the office floor each day. He was fiercely loyal and devoted to his clients, the firm and his work and enjoyed an epic career that spanned more than 50 years, all of it at Stephenson Harwood. To so many of us he was inspirational; he showed that litigating could be fun, that time spent teaching less experienced lawyers was time well spent, and above all that you should always lead from the front.

After reading Law at Cambridge University John joined Stephenson Harwood as an articled clerk in 1972. He qualified into the commercial litigation practice before joining the partnership in 1979. After a period running the firm's trainee recruitment programme, he later became the head of the commercial litigation department, a position which he held for 25 years making him the firm's longest serving head of department. The growth of the department during his tenure is testament to his leadership and market reputation and its sheer size when he stepped down led to it being split into two. After he retired as a partner in 2022, John continued to work as a consultant, focusing on mediation, an alternative method of dispute resolution of which John was an early and enthusiastic adopter.

John acted in some of the highest profile disputes of the day in the English courts, including the Maxwell Pensioners' claims, the case against Dame Shirley Porter in the 'Homes for Votes' scandal (for which the firm won Litigation Team of the Year) and for Lonhro in the bitterly fought battle over the ownership of Harrods. In this last case John had the unusual experience of being joined as a defendant to proceedings against Lonrho and its CEO, Tiny Rowland, for contempt of the House of Lords, a claim against him which was dismissed after a dramatic hearing before the Law Lords.

That was not John's first brush with the authorities. Even longer ago, in the early 1980s, he was an integral part of the Stephenson Harwood team that helped secure the release of 50 hostages who had been held in the US Embassy in Tehran for 14 months. In the US, the White House press secretary, Jody Powell, announced that the firm had resolved the last outstanding problem to allow funds belonging to the Iranian banks to be unfrozen. Telephoned by a US media publication John gave some very basic information about the firm. This was printed and caused a furore. Advertising by solicitors was banned at that time and other firms were furious at the publicity that Stephenson Harwood received and reported John to the Law Society for ‘touting’. He was cleared, of course, and the Law Society commended the firm on its conduct of the case.

John was renowned for his sharp intellect, a trait that was both admired and could, at times, be challenging. He had an innate sense of linguistic precision and was particularly displeased by split infinitives and other grammatical misdemeanours.

John was also generous, with his time and advice, but also in personally funding much of the cost of the biennial litigation department trips around Europe in which he was also an enthusiastic participant.

Away from law John had well-known passions for curry and for cricket. When he felt he had insufficient energy to continue playing the game he took up umpiring and was also often found enjoying the sounds of leather on willow at Lords. He was also an enthusiastic and knowledgeable buyer of art.

John died on 27 July 2023, aged 74. He is survived by his wife Sarah, children Rebecca and Ben, and five grandchildren.

For those who wish to make a donation in John's memory, the family kindly requests that donations be made to The Children's Literacy Trust and Sightsavers.



Andrew Rieley

Head of communications and PR

T: +44 20 7809 2886
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