It is 1975 and I’ve left my sleepy New Forest home for the bright lights and persistent rain that was Bristol University to study law and life. I had a lot to learn.
My first year degree subjects comprised the law of tort, which I still struggle to explain even today, crime, which I don’t and two others which are rather fundamental to how the law operates: the English Legal System and Public Law.
The lecturer in ELS was Welsh, of course. That’s actually not the nonsense it suggests because the English legal system is in fact the English and Welsh Legal System but that’s a bit of a mouthful and the Welsh are always happy to be subsumed into ‘England’…
Stephan Jones was a man dedicated to tweed jackets, bushy beards and the well-being of his students. While some were happy for us to succeed as long as it didn’t require much effort on their parts and others actively sought to make our lives hell because either (a) they thought it would toughen us up for the rigours of life or (b) they were inclined to vote psychopath in most elections, or possibly both, Stephen fell into that small category of going out of his way to see us succeed. I think he would have been at his chirpiest if he’d been able to give us the answers to the exams and then congratulated us on our memorising the answers. Naturally that made him both popular and irritating, like having a parent who wants to be your friend.
In those early weeks I was unnerved by his bonhomie. At school I mostly survived my encounters with my teachers by being neither good nor bad enough to be singled out for humiliation. In the small tutorial groups we had at University that wasn’t so easy. Maybe it was there I developed my suspicion that men who smile with their teeth are untrustworthy, for he would engage the full Freddie Mercury if you so much as said good morning.
The subject itself, focusing on how all things legal fitted together was sometimes fascinating but mostly dull. He bigged it up as best he could, but he couldn’t follow through, like a girl telling you how good the kiss is going to be, only for you end up being asked to inspect her filings instead.
The ELS is what is also known as the common law which is an extraordinarily flexible, if often confusing legal system and which we exported to many corners of the globe, whether the recipients wanted it or not.
I knew little of this when I started my degree. I understood that you could own your own house and if I ran into someone on my bike I might get sued for the damage I caused, but how these concepts originated and how everyone was meant to understand how they worked was a bit of a mystery.
Stephen’s job was to set the scene for all the other courses we took and explain how they all fitted together because without that the whole degree would have been a mess. That he managed to do that says a lot for his enthusiasm and tenacity.
I had what was often described as an ‘inquiring mind’ and I really did enjoy finding out how things worked. But there are reasons why the other principal legal system that pervades the democratic nations which comprises a set of strictures that you must comply with – the civil code, beloved of Napoleon and other continental despots – is popular, especially with law students. It has no, or little, historic baggage. You don’t need to know Latin to understand some of it. You don’t need to be told that your simplistic idea that the land you think you own is actually still owned by the Crown and you hold it by the grant of the Crown (what is called a ‘fee’, simply a payment to hold it, which over time has become a ‘fee simple’ and this carries no dues to be paid any more) and not outright ownership, good against everyone forever and always; and if you own land that leads down to the sea – and let’s face it this Britain is a curiously shaped island with a lot of coast – you only own it to a fluctuating imaginary line that lies between the high and low tide mark – the mean high water mark- and after that the good old Crown owns it all (unless of course some historic Royal person buggered your pet rodent and granted the rights to the sea bed to your ancestors to stop a scandal/duel/visit from animal rights). In theory you could walk all the way around the coast without trespassing on anyone’s land but Her Maj’s if you stay below that mean high water mark. To say it’s complicated and has been since time immemorial (which started on 6th July 1189 in case you were wondering) is one of those mental beastings that are visited on law students.
Our lecture theatre was a sort of squashed horseshoe shape and many was the time Stephen would be extolling the virtues of some abstruse concept of the Common Law for its flexibility while my brain leeched out of my ears, as it sought refuge from the egregious thought abuse I was putting it through. Looking back Stephen was like those doctors and car mechanics who tell you excitedly that they’ve not seen one of those growths/malfunctions for an age, their enthusiasm for the joy of problem solving ignoring the fact that it is your scrotum/carburettor they are describing and you will be paying one way or another as they attempt to solve it.
After all lectures, we would sidle into the common room and stare disconsolately at the coffee machine, wondering if it would ever purvey something vaguely resembling the picture that had been stuck onto the various buttons. It even managed to bastardised the hot water function, adding something vaguely peaty to its natural flavouring. Had Botox been a thing back in the 70s an enterprising salesperson might have made a killing in that common room after an ELS lecture given the depth and consistency of the frowns sported by all the first years.
Public Law, by contrast was taught by a beanpole called Nigel Fury, though he had more in common with your average Nigel than your average Fury. He might have been described as lugubrious but that suggests he was rather more flighty than his actual personality. Thus he took an intrinsically dull subject, covering as it did the role in law of government, statutory bodies and local authorities and the laws and practices they applied and made in really boring. I’d like to tell you that there were interesting high points when the subject fizzed with interest… but there weren’t. There was even a court case about television licence fees, though I’m not about to look it up to find out its relevance.
What Nigel did do was give good dictation. He dictated at a tempo and in a tone that allowed you to shut down three quarters of your brain and still write coherent notes. Had law failed as a career option I could have considered human word processor as an alternative.
Outside of lectures we had weekly tutorials that were meant to link to the lectures we had sat through in the preceding week. Having Messrs Fury and Jones as both lecturer and tutor ensured that happened. And with Tort, while the myopically weird Keith Stanton lectured as if teaching us train spotting, Hugh Beale, our tutor somehow managed to work out what was going through that labyrinthine mind to create a vaguely consistent set of tutorials.
Crime, though, was a different kettle of incomprehension. Chris Sherrin, blond and, to me rather fey and almost flaccid but to several of the women, the epitome of mysterious masculinity, taught crime diffidently, as if he was explaining oral sex to a section of the Women’s Institute before the nine o’clock watershed. Dr Jill Spruce – always Doctor – our tutor, modelled herself on a Bond villain with world domination and first year student humiliation her twin goals. So far as her tutorials were concerned the only part that had anything other than the most tangential linkage to Chris’ lectures was having ‘criminal law’ in the title. Memorably one of the brave women in my group asked her why she wasn’t following Chris’ lectures in setting her tutorials. Her look, slow and silent, could have been simple disdain, but from where I sat was more redolent of those nature documentaries that focused on apex predators sizing up their next meal. ‘What Mister Sherrin decides to teach you is his business. It has nothing to do with me.’
For me, at 18, she was an eye opener. Formidable of both intellect and personality, she turned out to be an astute judge of we students. She terrified me in those early weeks and gave no praise to anyone, while most of us were excoriated regularly. But by Christmas most of us understood her requirements and she taught me everything about reading a case report and extracting the kernels we needed to understand what on Earth the judge or judges were actually deciding. Pretty much every case held in the high court and above is reported somewhere. Back then these compendium of law reports (the All England Law Reports being the principal one) set out the detailed judgments publicly available. And this has been true for over 150 years. The legal publishers also provided those cases with helpful summaries but very often those over simplified the points of law and failed dismally to set out how a judge had come to his decision. Naturally we 18 year olds read the summarises and hoped to blag our way past our lack of detailed consideration. Dr Spruce not only disabused us of this approach but taught us just how to really read those juridical opinions. She made it plain; if you can’t extract the legal asides – the orbiter dicta as they are known – and separate them from the main decisions – Sorry, more Latin, the ratio decidendum – then you might misunderstand the applicability of that decision to future cases with disastrous consequences both in life, but more especially in that gloomy dark panelled room we visited weekly.
How often is it that those who’ve most terrified me – Colin Boun, my history teacher, Jill Spruce, Penny Freer, the most terrifying partner when I joined my long term law firm – have taught me the most about their subjects but also about myself and my capacity to be better than I thought I could be? I wouldn’t be where I am today; no, I’d be eating pot noodle. Equally, they’re not getting a Christmas card any time soon…