Speech at President’s Reception 2020
This is the speech given by the SLS President for 2019-20, Professor Rebecca Probert, at the President’s Reception held at The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple on Wednesday 4 March 2020.
It gives me great pleasure, as President of the SLS, to welcome all of our members and distinguished guests.
I would like to thank Middle Temple for hosting us, and to Rosa Bladon for doing all the hard work to make this event happen. This is Rosa’s first year as administrative secretary of the SLS and she has been doing a wonderful job.
I would also like to thank all of the officers of the Society, the wider Executive Committee, and Council. The other officers of the Society all serve far longer than the President and are far more important in ensuring that everything runs smoothly. The Executive Committee is where business is transacted, new ideas are discussed and responses to external consultations and reports debated. At least three of the nine appointed members have to be recent members of the Society, which ensures a regular infusion of new ideas. And Council is the key governing body within the Society. It has representatives from the majority of law schools, and we are looking to reduce the threshold for appointing a representative to ensure that Council is genuinely reflective of legal academia.
This reception provides an opportunity to celebrate the Society of Legal Scholars and the achievements of its members.
We are the Society of Legal Scholars of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the existence of a society that transcends jurisdictions is in itself something worth celebrating at a time when so much focus is on division. And we do our best to ensure that the location of SLS events reflects the breadth of our membership. Later this month we are co-hosting an event with the Socio-Legal Studies Association and the Judicial Appointments Commission at Coventry University, kindly organised by Stephen Hardy. Next month we are delighted that Lady Hale will be delivering the inaugural Hale lecture at the University of York, and we are looking to hold the next Hale lecture in Dublin in 2021. We have provided funding to enable the Energy subject section to hold an event in Edinburgh. Through the Small Projects and Events Fund we are supporting events taking place in Queen’s University Belfast, and at the Universities of Essex, Bristol and Northumbria. And each of those events will bring together colleagues from different institutions and at different stages of their career: indeed, the diversity and inclusivity of events is something that we consider when considering which of the many excellent proposals for events can be funded.
Our Society has been in existence for 111 years. During that time the life of an academic has changed somewhat. One former colleague, now retired, recalled his former tutor having published one very well-received article – and a second, not so well received. Following this adverse reaction his tutor had not published anything since before the war. The First World War. Twenty-three years ago, I was appointed to a full-time academic post with no PhD, no publications, very limited experience of teaching and only the vaguest idea of what I might want to research and write about. By contrast, many of those seeking their first lectureship today will have spent many more years studying. They will not have the luxury of being able to take their time and build up their scholarship with book reviews, case notes and shorter pieces but are expected to produce work that is internationally excellent from the start. As a Society, we recognise and are concerned by the casualization and precarious working conditions that we see across the HE sector and are thinking about how we can best support those at the start of their careers.
Despite the challenges that face academia – and in particular legal academia – there is no job in the world that I would rather do. If I had known that this job existed when I was growing up, it would have been my dream job, but as the first in my family to stay on at school beyond the age of 16, it was not something I was even aware of.
There is much to celebrate in the life of a legal scholar. There is the opportunity to shape the next generation of lawyers, by encouraging them to question their assumptions about what law is and what it should be. Sometimes such opportunities may arise unexpectedly. Those of you who know my research interests might be surprised to learn that I teach on a module called Comparative Contract Law. This is in fact a sneaky way for me to teach some legal history – history as a comparator. The discussions that I have had with students on that module have been some of the most invigorating and rewarding of my teaching career. When students realise how much of what they take for granted about the very nature of law is historically contingent, they also realise how they need to question the way law is now. And as a teacher, I have realised just how receptive our students are to being challenged in this way.
We also have the privilege of being able to choose our specialism, to mark a mark on a particular area through our teaching and our research, and sometimes by engaging with policy-makers and bringing about change. The difference that legal scholarship can make outside academia is a topic that is close to my heart, and will be the subject of one of our plenary sessions at the September conference in Exeter To speak on this we have a distinguished panel including Professor Nick Hopkins of the Law Commission, Professor Shaheen Ali, and Sharon Witherspoon.
Turning to the achievements of our members, I would like to congratulate Professors Eva Lomnicka, Judith Masson, Clare McGlynn and Jane Stapleton on being appointed as Honorary QCs. This is a real mark of honour. It’s also worthy of note that all four are women. And it’s also worth remembering that some of them entered academia at a time when they would have had very few female role models. It is one of the more startling statistics in Fiona Cownie’s chapter in Erika Rackley and Rosemary Auchmuty’s wonderful edited collection, Women’s Legal Landmarks, that it was only in 1990 that the number of female law professors across the UK reached double figures.
To return to the achievements of members. Every year we award a prize for the best paper presented at the annual conference. Given that there are 28 sections, each with four sessions and up to four papers in each session, the competition is tough. The prize for the best paper presented at the Preston conference in 2019 goes to Dean Knight, for his paper entitled ‘Contextual review: the instinctive impulse and unstructured normativism in judicial review of administrative action.’ This is an incisive analysis of judicial review, assessing the apparently simple approach of asking ‘has something gone wrong’ against Fuller’s conception of the rule of law and finding it wanting. Dean is based at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and so was unfortunately unable to make the trip to collect his prize in person, but I think we should give him a round of applause in any case. My congratulations to Dean, and my thanks to Richard Taylor, Jamie Lee and Rachel Mulheron for judging the eligible papers. Dean’s paper will be appearing in the next issue of Legal Studies and I would encourage you all to read it.
That brings me to a further cause for celebration. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Legal Studies, and we will be celebrating that milestone with a special plenary session at the conference in Exeter in September. Cambridge University Press, the current publishers of Legal Studies, have kindly agreed to sponsor the drinks reception following that plenary.
While I have avoided choosing a specific theme for the 2020 conference, a number of themes are nonetheless emerging. One is inclusivity. A second is sustainability. The conference will be beginning with a meeting of the British Association of Comparative Law devoted to the topic of climate change, and will be closing with a special session on the climate emergency and the law school. We will be trying to make the conference as sustainable as possible, in a number of ways, including sourcing food and drink locally. There will be cider and beer from the Otter Brewery, Plymouth gin and – venturing over the border – Cornish tonic.
We will have the opportunity to toast Legal Studies in September – but in the meantime can I propose a toast to the Society of Legal Scholars.
Thank you all for coming, and enjoy the rest of your evening!