Back in 1975 I started a law degree at Bristol University. It was a life changing experience for me and many aspects are seared into my memory. Today, I’m starting my courses and while I’ve relied solely on memory for the case names and facts, I apologise for any errors and omissions. I could look them up but I thought you’d prefer the vagaries of memory for terminological exactitudes.
I wasn’t as nervous as, with hindsight, I probably should have been about the academic side of my nascent university career. In that first week we were told we would be studying four subjects, namely criminal law, the law of tort, the English Legal System and public law. Apart from crime with which most of us had a passing familiarity and in some cases some hands on experience, the other subjects sounded … fascinating?
No, scrub that. Take ‘tort’. Who on earth at, say, 40 knows what a tort is? For the sophisticated it might be an exotic sounding pudding but for most of us ‘tort’ is what we expected to be, vis a verb not a noun. And to be taught tort generally left most of we 18 year olds with some of our unused grey matter leaking out of our ears.
We learnt that we would be having lectures for the whole year and then broken down into smaller seminar groups to discuss the week’s learnings and be given essays to write. Our lecturers were a bit of a mixed bunch: Keith Stanton, a shaggy haired myopic newby had the Tort gig – we learnt later that this was seen as a bit of poisoned chalice and thus given to anyone newly recruited to the teaching ranks; Chris Sherrin, a sandy-haired wannabe hearth throb with a soft voice and terrified expression nabbed crime; Stephen Jones, with a Joy of Sex weirdy beardy countenance ground his way through the vagaries of the English Legal System – it didn’t take us long to realise the misuse of the word ‘system’ in this context; and Nigel something – his surname now escapes me – the unfeasibly tall and listing northerner – managed the impossible of making public law even more boring than in the text book. In terms of my seminar tutors, I was in Stephen’s group for ELS, but had different tutors for the other three: Hugh Beale, an utterly delightful man who got me my first legal job and was my personal tutor who also introduced me to the Textiliste when she began her law degree the following year, took me for tort; Doctor Jill Spruce, the ferocious blond haired vampire slayer who did her best to instil the terror that should be an essential component of every undergraduate’s life was in charge of ensuring I understood how the criminal justice system worked and, as with many legal oxymorons why linking criminal and justice together was in and of itself a crime against language, logic and common sense; and Nigel Lowe who looked much like you might imagine Daniel Radcliffe if he was 45 and ingested a daily kebab smoothie for breakfast did his best to rehabilitate public law but, let’s be honest, his heart wasn’t in it – he was an expert on the relatively (then) new area of European Law (we’d been part of the common market for four year by this time) and he did his best to bring in comparisons to that bizarre and otherworldly system to counterpoint the many, in his opinion, inadequacies of the English approach.
We would gather daily for lectures – Wednesdays was the worst with three, hour long torture sessions in a 1930s dark wood panelled auditorium with walls the colour of aged vomit and an acoustic that proved tinnitus isn’t only found in the inner ear.
Keith Stanton’s delivery suggested he thought he was making a joke and was surprised when we didn’t laugh or at least show some animation. To be fair, while tort is a liquorish allsorts grouping covering the laws of negligence, nuisance and strict liability, amongst others, it does have some bizarre cases to keep the average 18 year old alert. Even the leading authority in the development of the law of negligence involves Ms Stevenson ingesting a snail that had found its way into a bottle of ginger beer. But there were also cases about fires that set Melbourne harbour ablaze in the many Re Wagon Mound cases, a cracker where a spectator at a motor racing event was catapulted into the air by a rope barrier when a competitor spun off and the never to be forgotten case of Cammel Laird v Someone, when a man’s overalls were caught in an unguarded lathe and his penis was avulsed – you can imagine what that means without looking it up. No one knew that word, but a law degree is nothing if not educational so far as extremes of language are concerned. I admit that, in none of these cases did we give much thought to the appalling consequences to the litigants or their next of kin – we were fighting on two fronts, namely the battling the tedium of learning about remoteness of damage and questions of foreseeability on the one hand and writing out yards of notes from the machine gun dictation of the lecturers; as a consequence humanity was lost in the mix.
Another word some of us learnt, alongside our lecturer, Mr Sherrin was necrophilia when he cited a case that centred around such an act. In one of those moments we will never forget and he will never live down he suggested that it was some form of illegal narcotic, which just goes to show that, pre Google, research wasn’t always easy.
If I anticipated one thing it was that crime would be the easiest subject to understand and after the first couple of lectures on how the crime of murder was then characterised, I still held that view. The then leading case was the DPP v Holmes involving seven members of the House of Lords (this before we evolved to a Supreme Court) opining on the actions of a disaffected boyfriend who shoved a lit rag through the letter box of his ex’s house and ended the existence of her and their children. He didn’t intend to kill, or so it was claimed, but was he so reckless as to the consequences as to move what might otherwise be manslaughter to murder? It was interesting and felt like we could all have a view.
Then we went to our first tutor group session with Dr Spruce and our little world cracked and smithereened. Instead of Holmes and murder, she gave us two cases, one of which was called Knuller v the DPP – the DPP was the director of public prosecutions and appeared on some cases in lieu of the Queen – I probably knew why once. That’s one of many facts I’ve failed to retain, much like my ability to hold onto the the hair on my head and the thread of numerous anecdotes. In Knuller the House of Lords – again – considered how far English law should extend, in this case whether there was a crime of conspiracy to corrupt public morals. As I recall, it involved some sort of dodgy directory of ladies of the night and while the publishers could not be had for an Obscene publication nor facilitating prostitution both of which could be crimes, they knew, or so it was argued, that they were doing something so immoral that right thinking English persons – namely old white men – would consider it a crime. It involved questions of public policy, judicial law making and goodness knows what. The opinions of the senior judges ran to hundreds of pages and she wanted us to write an easy distinguishing between the judges’ ratio decidendi* and their orbiter dicta**. Of course you know what they are – keep up class. We hadn’t the first effing clue and so the best mark was some swot who managed somewhere in the 30s (out of 100) and it wasn’t me. I hated La Spruce, criminal law and wondered, not for the first time why I wasn’t doing history….
It did get better but not for at least a year. Meanwhile there were always parties and, a wholly new concept for me back then: the nightclub.
*Ratio decidend is the Latin phrase meaning “the reason” or “the rationale for the decision”. The ratio decidendi is “the point in a case that determines the judgement” or “the principle that the case establishes”.
**Obiter dictum (usually used in the plural, obiter dicta) is the Latin phrase meaning “by the way”, that is, a remark in a judgment that is “said in passing”