Society of Legal Scholars

Speech at President’s Reception 2016

This is the speech given by the SLS President for 2015-16, Professor Andrew Burrows, at the President’s Reception held at the Middle Temple on Wednesday March 9.

SLS President’s Reception 2016

Middle Temple March 9, 2016

I would like to begin with a few words of thanks. First, thank you all for coming and to Middle Temple for hosting us. I would especially like to thank Sally Thomson, our administrative secretary, who has done all the hard work behind the scenes.

I next have the very pleasurable task of awarding two SLS prizes. The first is for the best paper at last year’s annual conference. This was then published in the first edition in 2016 of the SLS journal Legal Studies and the winner of that for the paper entitled ‘Towards an understanding of the basis of obligation and commitment in family law’ is Professor Gillian Douglas of Cardiff Law School. The other prize is for the best poster at last year’s annual conference and the winner of that is the team led by Dawn Watkins of Leicester University with the poster ‘Adventures with Lex – the Story so Far’ which is concerned with a project on Law in Children’s Lives. Dawn is collecting the prize on behalf of herself, Elee Kirk, Effie Law and Jo Barwick.

I consider it a huge honour to stand here as the President of the SLS. In so doing, I follow in the footsteps of two of my great mentors. First of all, Professor Harry Street who, when I arrived on the Law Faculty in Manchester in 1981, advised me to join the SPTL as it then was. He added – and those who knew Harry will know just how characteristic this was – ‘They have very good discount rates for young members’. Professor Street had an amazing knack for foreseeing future trends in academia so that in much of his writing he was ahead of his time: books on administrative law, human rights, road accident compensation schemes, and damages predated the explosion of interest in those areas. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was to start writing and publishing straightaway. He called me into his office after I had been at Manchester a few weeks and the conversation went something like this: ‘Young Burrows, you need to start publishing. There’s an interesting recent case called Perry v Sidney Phillips on damages in contract and tort. Write a case-note on it for the MLR. I’ll look over it for you’. I replied, ‘Thanks, when do you want it by?’ this being a Friday. He said, ‘Well any time on Monday would be fine.’

After Manchester I returned to Oxford and ultimately joined forces in teaching Restitution on the BCL with Professor Peter Birks. Peter had interviewed me for admission to Brasenose College, had been my tutor for four years, and remained my academic inspiration on all matters until his untimely death at the age of 62 in 2004. He was passionate about the SLS serving for many years as the society’s Hon Sec and in 2002-3 as its President. Peter as we all know was a truly brilliant legal scholar.

As regards the SLS this year – and this is my sort of half-year report to you – we have been trying to raise the profile of the society, we are in the process of revamping our website, and we have embarked on a recruitment drive which has seen our membership climb once more to around 3000.

There have been two issues of concern to all lawyers that we have been particularly focussed on. The first is the proposed reform to legal education that the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority have been consulting on. The SRA’s proposal to downgrade the importance of an aspiring solicitor having a degree (whether a law or non-law degree) is, we think, especially worrying.

The second issue is to draw greater attention to the poor quality of much of our legislation in this country. Not only do we now have ever-increasing secondary legislation which is being drafted in departments by those who are not trained drafters but we also have an ever-increasing quantity of primary legislation that is so unclear and complex that, in some areas, even lawyers and judges cannot work out what the law is. Parts of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 which came into force on the day my Presidency started, October 1, are a good example of the problem. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the cutbacks at the Office of Parliamentary Counsel in recent years, particularly the culling of the senior drafters – a false economy if ever there was one – are coming home to roost.

This leads me to this year’s annual conference of the SLS which is to be held at St Catherine’s College, Oxford between Tuesday and Friday 6-9 September 2016. The theme is Legislation and the Role of the Judiciary. As well as the 28 subject groups, plenary sessions will focus on the modern approach to statutory interpretation, the extent to which judges should develop the common law or should leave reform to the Legislature, and on the present work of the Law Commission.

I would finally like to leave you with the upbeat message that our law schools are exciting places to work in and to be part of. Although increasing bureaucracy is a major headache, the last 15 years or so have seen exciting developments in the range of, and attention devoted to, legal research in our law schools. While I am very much of the view that the core focus must remain on doctrine – on rigorous analytical reasoning which seeks to provide the best interpretation of the detailed rules of law and directly enables students to understand and apply law and legal reasoning as a practical discipline – at the same time it is, I believe, essential that every law student should have some exposure to legal history, sociological theories of law, philosophical reasoning about law and the economic analysis of law. My essential message is that, without sacrificing the doctrinal core, and with apologies to Mao Tse-Tsung, many types of flower are blooming, and should be encouraged to bloom, in our law schools.