Mr R.W.M. Dias Memorial Address

Memorial Address written and presented by Dr Neil Jones, University of Cambridge

Reproduced with his permission

Address at the memorial service for Mr R.W.M. Dias, St Mary’s the Great, Cambridge, 13 March 2010

Law has been studied in Cambridge, the Faculty website tells us, since the thirteenth century. And of course this is true: Trinity Hall was founded by bishop Bateman of Norwich in the wake of the Black Death to replenish the ranks of canon lawyers in the diocese, and among the monk-scholars of the Benedictine hostel which became the College of St Mary Magdalene were students of canon law. But university study of English law, as opposed to the canon law of the church, and the civil law of the Romans, is a relative newcomer.

When in 1942 R.W.M Dias of Trinity Hall took a starred first in Part II of the Law Tripos, among his examiners was W.W. Buckland of Caius, Regius Professor of Civil Law, then in his eighties, who had been a member of the Faculty before Maitland’s untimely death in 1906. While Maitland was an undergraduate a conjoined law and history tripos had been thought possible; indeed when Maitland was a child the lectures of the Downing Professor of the Laws of England, as the current holder of the chair has put it, ‘did not count at all, since he was not mentioned in the [Elizabethan] statutes’. When the young Mr Dias came up on the eve of war to read law at Trinity Hall in the footsteps of his father and grandfather the Law Tripos was barely older than the Regius Professor.

Thus as Professor Simpson has recently observed,

In the Oxford of the 1950s [and, one might add, in the Aberystwyth and the Cambridge of the 1950s,] the status of the study of law remained uncertain. Some thought it as out of place in a university as plumbing, and … the study of jurisprudence was still viewed by defenders of university legal education as essential if academic law was to enjoy any intellectual standing.

It was in this context that Dias on Jurisprudence came into being – born, as Mickey ruefully put it, before it was conceived – in a line of works intended as comprehensive treatises on jurisprudence, stretching back to the 1870s and Sir William Markby’s Elements of Law Considered with reference to the Principles of General Jurisprudence. Dias on Jurisprudence, much re-written, reached its fifth and final edition in 1985, but such works are now more or less extinct – the seeds of their demise sown in the 1960s in the work of H.L.A. Hart. Jurisprudence courses in university law schools have since become much more philosophical, the province of legal philosophers rather than reflective lawyers. Modern philosophical jurisprudence is not to the taste of all, and perhaps we may think that in the process something has been lost. As Mickey put it ‘Teachers of law always hope to encourage their pupils to learn how to think rather than just what to know, and Jurisprudence is peculiarly suited to this end because it can set law in wider contexts and proceed by way of stimulating ideas and not simply by instruction.’

If Dias on Jurisprudence thus marked closing of an academic tradition, Mickey’s work on the law of tort, and, in particular on negligence, in some senses marked a beginning. In 1961 appeared the twelfth edition of Clerk and Lindsell on Torts, written by an editorial team of nine headed by Arthur Armitage, President of Queens’, all but one of whom were members of the Cambridge Law Faculty. This, said the Cambridge Law Journal’s reviewer, ‘is a take-over bid, with a vengeance!’. ‘Time was’, he went on,

not so very long ago, when what was writ about law in the universities received little attention, if indeed it was known to exist at all, in the Inns of Court. I speak not of International Law and other esoteric topics where Diceys and Lauterpachts have always held sway, but of the ordinary, everyday, humdrum common law of England. Maitland, of course, was a name revered wherever good history was relished, and the fearsome initials F.P. were known to make even judges tremble. More recently we have had A.L.G. telling us all about an abominable snowman called Polemis, clothed in an imaginary necktie, belabouring but never quite vanquishing the saintly knight, Foreseeability who finally appears in seraphic splendour triumphant on a wagon mound. For all that, the prospect that a practitioners’ encyclopedia should be written or edited by anyone but a practitioner would have been startling if not shocking. Nowadays, however, the law in nearly all its live branches has grown so voluminous and complex, even intercontinental, in its scope that the idea of one person being at the same time a practitioner and a textbook writer has become almost inconceivable … So it has come about that Clerk & Lindsell is no more: what we now have … is ‘The Cambridge Law Faculty on Torts’.

Adjured to brevity, the reviewer confined himself to listing without comment the areas with which each contributing editor had dealt, but there was one exception: ‘Mr Dias deals with Negligence and Remoteness of Damage, and his extensive rewriting of these topics is a most interesting and valuable contribution to the subject.’ And it should be borne in mind how new, in some senses, the tort of negligence was when Mickey began writing on it in the 1950s: it had achieved a chapter of its own in Clerk and Lindsell only in the tenth edition in 1947: Mickey’s was pioneering work. His association with Clerk and Lindsell was destined to continue: joint general editor with Sir Arthur Armitage of the fourteenth edition, Mickey had sole responsibility as general editor for the fifteenth edition in 1982, and the centenary sixteenth edition in 1989. Sir Geoffrey Elton said of lawyers, in contrast to historians, that they both have, and think that they are, authorities. That the latter is applicable to Mickey I am by no means certain – but authority indeed he was, cited and relied upon in court and out.

But that he was the general editor of Clerk and Lindsell on Torts, and indeed a war-time tennis blue, a bencher of the Inner Temple, and an honorary silk, can be no more than part of the story.

Bishop Barrington-Ward has spoken of Norah, whom he married in 1947, as the ‘lodestone’ of Mickey’s life, close to him even after her tragic death in 1980; of his pride in his daughters; and his devotion to his grandchildren.

And there was his work in Cambridge – in the university and in Magdalene. Upon graduation he had felt it to be his duty to volunteer for war service, and flew as an air gunner in RAF Coastal Command bombers, on submarine patrol over the North Sea. Perhaps there was more to this than he was generally prepared to reveal, though some of us heard at least the story of accidentally bombing his own airfield, told with characteristic verve and self-deprecating humour.

Demoblisation, and a brief period lecturing at Aberystwyth preceded a return to Cambridge as a university lecturer in 1951. There was duty to be done in the university too: the secretaryship of the Faculty Board of Law; reform of the Law Tripos, written up in the journal of the SPTL; service on the General Board and Council of the Senate, and as senior proctor.

And then there was Magdalene, where he was elected in 1955 – as the College’s first law fellow and internal director of studies in law. There was in Magdalene no legal tradition to speak of when Mickey arrived, and in a very real sense all that we have is his: the College Law Society; the freshers’ mooting competition; the annual dinner on the eve of the Tripos; the Archie Leslie Prize; Sunday lunch for undergraduates; the presence in College of law students in significant numbers.

These things are the outward and visible, but beyond them lie the invisible: an interest in success, but not at any price and not as the sole measure of worth; an emphasis upon precision, and clarity of thought and speech; a seriousness tempered by humour; modesty; a strong integrity, and a deep emphasis upon the individual, valued for him- or her-self; an atmosphere in which his pupils might take deep delight in purchasing for Mickey a place on a murder mystery weekend (where he was inevitably for a while a chief suspect, since, of course, Magdalene is in Oxford, not – as he had claimed – in Cambridge). These things Mickey has left us; we have come into a fair inheritance, and it is for us to preserve it.

In 1969 the Cambridge Law Journal published an obituary by Mickey of his late colleague Dr J.W.C. Turner, of Trinity Hall. Phrases stand out:

What shone through all was his kindness and understanding … there are many who may guess, but never know, how much they owe to him … He had a strong sense of obligation, insisting that one should think of one’s rights only after thinking of what one should give … He was devoted to his family, who were a constant source of pride and support to him … Personal advancement never interested him; his concern was with undergraduates and the institutions to which he belonged … Many, no doubt, have felt justly proud of their College and University; but there are few of whom it can be truly said that their College and University could justly be proud of them.

Mickey did not teach me, and I knew him only after his retirement, but he might, it seems to me, have been writing of himself – though Mickey, of course, would not have seen it quite like that.