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By Lesley Dingle and Daniel Bates

  • Born in Colombo, Ceylon, 3 March 1921
  • Travelled to England 1939
  • Trinity Hall 1939 - 42
  • Served in the RAF 1942
  • Lecturer in Law, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1949 - 51
  • Lecturer in Law, Cambridge University 1951 - 82
  • Called to the Bar, 1944. Inner Temple 1945
  • Fellow of Magdalene College 1955 - 91
  • Emeritus Fellow of Magdalene College 1991 - 2009
  • Tennis Blue (wartime) 1943

Mr R. W. M. “Mickey” Dias was born in Colombo on 3 March 1921 and from an early age his life was steeped in the routines and culture of the local legal system. His grandfather was a retired judge of the Supreme Court and frequent visitor at the family home in Colombo, while his father was a District Judge who was posted to various outstations across the country. His great uncle had also been a judge of the Supreme Court. In different times Mickey might have followed in their footsteps, but his early adulthood coincided with great global events and his career was destined to be at Cambridge, not in Ceylon.

During my conversations with Mickey Dias at his home on Babraham Road, one particular aspect of his legal scholarship stood out - his fascination with the workings of the law. This ultimately culminated in his well-received text Jurisprudence, and I can only speculate that this interest in legal science sprung from the formative experiences in his early teens. Then, he recounts, he sometimes accompanied his father to court, and even sat on the bench beside him to record evidence. He spoke to me with an enthusiasm undiminished by the years of his interest in the cases that came before the judge, as counsel thrashed out the issues during various murder and divorce trials. In his own words “I don’t think I was ever bored because of the unfolding dramas.” 

After briefly attending the Ceylon Law College in 1939, Mickey Dias made the long trek by boat and train to Cambridge, where he hoped to receive his formal legal training. Both his grandfather and father had been undergraduates at Trinity Hall, and he told me that at his birth, his father had made every effort to register his new son’s entry, as heir to the family tradition. This was a tradition that did not end with Mickey’s own career, as his daughter Julia has carried the Dias name through.

In 1939, war loomed, and Mickey told me that his greatest worry was that it would intervene before he had arrived. Luckily, it did not, and when he and his father, who accompanied his son on a nostalgic journey back to Trinity Hall, arrived, Chamberlain’s famous declaration was still a month away. His father safely negotiated his way home during the period of the “phoney war”, and Mickey settled in to a life which, after his first year became increasingly affected by the strictures of rationing and the presence of RAF personnel in most of the Cambridge colleges.

By a strange quirk of fate, it was at this time that the young man from Ceylon became acquainted with another of our eminent, immigrant scholars, the late Kurt Lipstein. Kurt’s arrival at Cambridge had the tragic elements of so many Jewish émigrés from Germany, but he and Mickey got to know each other well after Kurt was released from his internment, and Mickey tells me how fond he became of the kind, courteous Faculty Secretary. Both had come from legal foreign regimes, Civil Law, and in Mickey’s case, Roman Dutch Law, but both soon put deep roots into the Common Law, and made their own contributions to its development. His familiarity with a legal regime brought to Ceylon in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company manifested itself in an interest in Roman Law, and he tells how in his third year he was the sole student of Professor Buckland, and Dr David Daube in this neglected branch at Cambridge. Another trait he shared with Kurt Lipstein.

His pre-war arrival at Cambridge means that Mr Dias is one of the few living scholars with recollections of such luminaries as Buckland, Wade, Hersch Lauterpacht, Winfield, Hampson, Gutteridge and Hollond, while he has memories of younger staff whose careers in the Faculty straddled the war - Lipstein, Ellis Lewis, Bailey, Whalley-Tooker, and David Daube, amongst others.

Mickey Dias graduated in the middle of the war, and he joined the RAF, where he was drafted into Coastal Command. Mickey’s war was fought as a tail gunner in the patrols of the Leighlight Squadron, during which he was based at a series of stations across northeast Scotland. From here they patrolled the North Sea and Dutch and Belgian coasts searching for enemy submarines, not one might think the ideal circumstances under which to further a legal career. Mickey, however, put his spare time to good use, and in between periodically risking his life, he passed his bar exams, and was called to the Bar in 1944.

After a brief sojourn as a lecturer at Aberystwyth (1949-51), Mickey Dias returned to Cambridge, but his time in Wales was to have a major influence on his career. His lectures given there were recorded by a fellow lecturer, G. B. J. Hughes (originally an undergraduate at Jesus College), who in 1955 published them as a book. Alerted by Kurt Lipstein, three of the senior academics in the Faculty at Cambridge (Hamson, Robbie Jennings and Radzinowicz) formally investigated Hughes and he was persuaded to withdraw his own book and to collaborate with Mickey Dias in bringing out a new edition - hence the original 1957 Dias and Hughes.

Mickey tells me how he had initially had no intention of writing such a book, and that the first edition was not well received. Undaunted, he completely re-wrote it and in 1970, unencumbered by a co-author, he brought out a new volume with the same title. By 1985 the five hundred page volume had reached its 5th edition.

Mr R.W.M. Dias retired in 1982, having bequeathed four more important texts to legal scholarship [1979. A Bibliography of Jurisprudence, 1976. The English Law of Torts. A Comparative Introduction (with Basil Markesinis), 1984. Tort Law (also with Markesinis), and the 1989, 16th edition, of Clerk & Lindsell on Torts for which he was the General Editor]. During his twenty years in the Faculty he gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, sympathetic colleague, and legal analyst. Some of his ex-pupils included Professor Sir Derek Bowett, Mr Colin Turpin, Mr Yale, Mr John Collier, Mrs Cherry Hopkins, Mr John Hopkins, Professor Sir D. J. Williams and Professor Bob Hepple, amongst many others.

He became a Fellow of Magdalene College in 1955, and the esteem with which he is held there is attested to by  the establishment in 1993 of the Dias Law Studies Fund,  “to help support the teaching of law in the College establish a teaching Fellowship in the name of the distinguished law fellow, Mickey Dias.”

Mickey spent his entire career at Cambridge in the cramped but characterful Old Schools in Senate House Passage  under conditions modern scholars would probably deem unacceptable. After our interviews I invited him to spend some time in our new glass and steel monolith, and was surprised at how favourably he viewed the Faculty’s modern surroundings. Perhaps I should not have been: someone who had transplanted himself so successfully and under such trying circumstances nearly sixty years earlier must have had a very positive outlook on life, and clearly it has not waned.

I would like to thank Mr Dias for the hospitality of his home, and for allowing me insights into a long and illustrious career at the end of which he is remembered so fondly as a great teacher by many current legal luminaries both at Cambridge and elsewhere. It was a great pleasure to interview such a self-effacing scholar whose manners and demeanour are so charmingly “old-world”, but whose appreciation of social and legal norms is so modern.


Lesley Dingle - Acquisition and Creation of Content

Daniel Bates -  Visual Presentation, Technical Enhancement and Audio Editing