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Professor John Spencer's interviews were undertaken over three months (November 2020 to February 2021) during times of "lockdown" and "social-distancing"  to which the country was subjected during the Covid pandemic - and which have yet (March 2021) to end. Technology came to ESA's aid via Microsoft Teams meetings, but as listeners/readers might anticipate, many of the inter-personal, subconscious interchange, to which our previous encounters with ESA scholars had benefitted, were lacking. On the other hand, they did engender and benefit from a sense of casualness that some of the previous interviews lacked, and as it happens, such a degree of casualness played to one of John Spencer's strengths - a sense of forthright presentation. Swings and roundabouts.... as the expression goes.

The conversations took place when I had known Professor Spencer since 1997, a period of over sixteen years, and during which he served the bulk of his professorship until retirement in 2013. However, it was not until I had the privilege of speaking to him, and being enlightened by a good deal of background reading, that I became aware of the two John Spencers his years as Faculty doyen had hidden from me.

At the risk of over-analysing his life, I suspect posterity will recognise John Spencer both as the college don and Professor of Law, and as an aspirant country solicitor who never lost his ties to, and love of, a rural milieu. Their common, binding thread is, I believe, an ability and commitment to presents facts and ideas succinctly, sensibly, and fairly for the benefit of those in need thereof. He also possesses a witty and engaging style of presentation, which makes his communications accessible to lay-people and professionals alike.

But, closer analysis suggests these two categories themselves hide two further subsets of John Spencer's persona. His years as an academic research/teacher were spent mainly engaged in the labyrinthine interactions of criminal law, initially as a vigorous champion of the rights of children as witnesses, and latterly as a highly regarded interloculator teasing out the comparative advantages of English, continental, and EU criminal jurisdictions. Meanwhile, in his parallel universe of an aspirant country solicitor, along with his love of mundane, rural legal niceties, there also resided a humourous story-teller and entertainer.

Both subsets were/are driven by an empathy with lay-people, and simultaneously with a desire to right wrongs and miscarriages for those in need. Even his multitude of  university and college administrative roles (including his post-retirement work as a parish councillor) were/are motivated by a sense of duty and obligation to whichever society was offering him a spiritual home and milieu into which he had merged.

John Rason Spencer is therefore, the epitome of a intellectual who found a home in the sheltered confines of academic Cambridge while undertaking a 50 year sabbatical from the gentle life of rural England. Along the journey, he wrote a large number of erudite articles and books, and picked up numerous accolades and a CBE. Intriguingly, he is also a legal academic whose efforts have been blighted more than most by the ramifications of the momentous 2016 Brexit Referendum.

Early years

To place John Spencer's early years in the context of previous Faculty scholars interviewed for the ESA, he is the first who was born in the UK after the end of the Second World War (only James Crawford and Tony Smith are of a similar age[1]). Consequently, Professor Spencer's impressions of arriving in Cambridge fresh from school, have the novelty of being the only account in the archive not to include memories of deprivations and major physical and social disruptions caused by the war. The closest analogue was Rosalyn Higgins's arrival at Girton in 1956[2], but her childhood included recollections of the bombing of London and the contrasting tranquillity of Cambridge.

John's parents lived in Chelmsford, where he was born on 19th March 1946. In those days, Chelmsford was not a commuter appendage of NE London, so when the family moved to rural north Dorset in 1950 (when John was only four), the family was translocated from a county town in Essex to a village and then a rural town in the west country. His heritage was one of distance from large urban areas. [It is a diverting coincidence, but in 1950 John Baker[3] was in his second year at Trinity Road Primary School in Chelmsford, the town where his father became the Assistant Chief Constable in the local police force. Ships that pass in the night....]

"[My] father had a job as a district surveyor for Dorset County Council in the roads and bridges department, There he and my mother stayed for the rest of their lives, and that is where I was brought up." (Q1).

But John Spencer's upbringing was not straightforward. The year the family moved (1950), John had the misfortune to contract poliomyelitis during one of the national outbreaks that struck in the early 50s[4] -  "I think it was when I was four.  My parents were convinced I was physically too weak to send to primary school when I was five, and I don't think they wanted me to go to the village primary school anyway, for other reasons, and they had me taught by an octogenarian clergyman who lived next door. That went well, and he later taught my sister too" (Q2).

His home-schooling lasted for the next five years (1951-56), by which time the legacy of this episode was, as John put it, that he  "had a reasonable knowledge of Latin and some French, but ...was behind the others in mathematics, and I'm afraid that stuck with me for the rest of my time, and I was absolutely useless at was an eccentric beginning to my education." (Q2).

When John was ten, the Spencer family moved again (1956), to Sturminster Newton, a small town five miles away, and here John spent a year at the local primary school. After passing the 11-plus exam, John attended Blandford Grammar School, about nine miles away, and spent the next seven years commuting daily by train (1957-64).

Professor Spencer reminisced somewhat wistfully on his experiences of an age of travel that ended with the ill-founded mass closure of much of Britain's rural railway system in the infamous "Beeching closures" in the early 60s that included the rapid phasing out of steam trains[5]. "We used to go by train to school every day, a steam train, on a railway line: the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway line, as railway enthusiasts will know. There was great corporate spirit among the Sturminster Newtonians going up and down on that railway line every day.  All that makes me particularly sad that the railway is now closed [6]."(Q3).

A similar fate has befallen Blandford Grammar School. Along with so many grammar schools country-wide it was also closed in the late 60s, but when John Spencer attended, Blandford offered a wide education to pupils from a large catchment area. He remembers it with affection. "It was a small country grammar school, but there were teachers who had been there for years who were good, and I fell in with some other people in the sixth form who were interested in the world around us, and we talked and talked. To this day I am still in touch with people I got to know at the grammar school.  Yes, it did very well by me.  There was an association of old members which continued to exist until earlier this year [2020] and as one of the last group of people who went to that school before it closed to become became part of a comprehensive school [7] I was sad when, with so many members lost, the association closed." (Q4).

Following his rather restricted primary school curriculum under the tutelage of the elderly clergyman, John's favoured subjects were, unsurprisingly, History, French, Latin, and English, while the sciences, in which although he had an interest, he was unable to take forward because of his lack of mathematics.

Cambridge Undergraduate (1965-69)

John Spencer's family had no legal connections, and, as with several of our other ESA scholars, his decision even to apply to Oxbridge was down to enthusiastic advice from a schoolteacher who had aspirations to get pupils into university as an almost vicarious sense of achievement. In John's case a newly arrived headmaster - Arthur Frankland - had received a flyer from the Admissions Tutor at Selwyn College, Cambridge who was on a recruiting mission. The latter, David Harrison [8], later became Master at Selwyn (1994-2000), before rising to Pro-V-C University of Cambridge University (1997).

Selwyn College itself lies on Grange Road and is a relatively modern foundation (1880s), and only gained collegiate status in 1958. John's headmaster was hazy in his knowledge of the college and his pitch to John was that "We have had this pamphlet from the admissions tutor, David Harrison, at Selwyn College.  I don't remember much about Selwyn but I think it has something to do with the Church of England. You have short hair, and you go to church, so why don't you apply to Selwyn?" (Q7). On such vagaries are great careers hinged: "I applied to Selwyn, where I was accepted".

But for a short break (1969-70), John Spencer remained at Selwyn College for the whole of his Cambridge sojourn - 1965 to 2015 - a remarkable 50 years. 

In fact, Selwyn had been established in memory of George Selwyn[9], the first Bishop of New Zealand (1841-68), and it originally had a strong religious character. Its charter states that the college was where persons of "......sober living and high culture of the mind may be combined with Christian training based upon the principles of the Church of England", and initially only baptised Christians were accepted as students or scholars. Perhaps Mr Frankland's impressions were not so far off the mark, and as Professor Spencer pointed out "There was an active chapel, with a chapel choir (in which I sang), and the Master of the college was Owen Chadwick[10], who was a clergyman. But you no longer had to be a member of the Church of England to be admitted." (Q7).

While we discussed Professor Spencer's earliest days in a university milieu, his rural pedigree was clear to see, and was a feature that appeared time and again as he recalled his career over half a century - a deep sense of belonging to the professional classes of what might be called euphemistically "middle England", deeply rooted in the shires.

John had engineers on both sides of his family - "[My father] was a civil engineer, and his father had been an engineering draftsman...[and] my mother's father was another highway engineer, and ....if I had been good at mathematics....the tendency would have been to push me in that direction,." (Q10).

His decision to try for a place in law at university rested on the contingency that his father  "...had a friend who was a solicitor who said, "Would he like to come to my office in school holidays and see what goes on and what I do?" and I found it very interesting.  I was lined up to go there as an articled clerk, and there was initially a question about whether I would go there immediately and just study to become a solicitor or go to university first. But the school said I should try to go to Cambridge, and, of course, I applied to Cambridge to read law.  My idea all along was to go back and be a country solicitor [in Dorset]" (Q10).

John Spencer was very conscious of his good fortune in gaining entry into Cambridge and as a consequence he  "suffered from "imposter syndrome", wondering how on earth I had got to Cambridge  and whether I was good enough..." (Q8). I recalled Rosalyn Higgins[11] expressing similar doubts during our ESA conversations regarding her arrival at Girton College in the mid-50s.

When I asked Professor Spencer whether the days of student unrest that swept English universities in the 60s had ripples that lapped at Oxbridge, his response was consequential upon this sense of middle England.  " [In] my student days  I had little patience with those who took an extreme left-wing position and wanted to tear everything to bits.  It seemed to me that Cambridge was partly filled with people from privileged backgrounds who were embarrassed about it and wanted to wreck the University, and partly filled with people from modest backgrounds who were happy to have got there and wanted to keep it as it was. I was part of that second group." (Q9).

Nevertheless, perhaps because of his relatively unambitious goals,  John confessed that " ....I didn't study particularly hard.  I played the ‘cello in those days, and I wanted to play in CUMS, the university music society orchestra."(Q8).

It was through music that John later met his future wife, Rosemary Stewartson, who was then a PhD student in biochemistry at Newnham. In the early days of his career her patient willingness to read and criticise his writings helped in his efforts to make complex legal issues comprehensible to those who were not lawyers. Later on, she helped him in another way when she became a JP and for many years acted as his "mole" on the workings of summary justice. They have three children, and, now in their 49th year of marriage, they have 3 grandchildren too.

John's ambition to return to Dorset as a solicitor persisted throughout his undergraduate days, and was not dispelled until chance offered him the opportunity for a temporary post overseas on completing his law tripos and LLB in 1969. This was largely due to the influence of a newly-arrived lecturer at Selwyn who had taken a personal interest in his (John's) fortunes as being amongst the first cohort of students admitted by Paul Fairest[12].

"Paul Fairest was a key person in my life ....he was new, and keen, and enthusiastic. We very much liked him, and he took great efforts on all of our behalf....he was an excellent lecturer, and an excellent supervisor....[He is ] a person to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude " (Q27).

During John Spencer's undergraduate days, the Faculty was still based in the Old Schools complex in the city centre. Professor Spencer's  memories thereof were relatively unsentimental, despite its quaint mixture of mediaeval and Victorian architecture, and he later confessed to liking the current ultra-modern Sidgwick Site edifice, to which the Faculty moved in 1995 (more of this anon).

Apropos the Old Schools: "It was a bit crowded, and the lecture rooms were physically not very comfortable with bone-hard seats and poor ventilation, and poor acoustics.  And the University Administration kept on getting bigger, and was gradually edging the Law Faculty out of the parts of the Old Schools that it had.  For a time the Law Faculty was given the East Room in compensation. It was a lovely room but the acoustics were particularly bad so we had to strain to hear the lectures....It was right next to the Squire Law Library, of course, and that was convenient.  Later, when I was first a don, we were squeezed out yet further. We then had to have lectures in different parts of the city, but all the lectures used to take place down in the Old Schools when I was an undergrad." (Q9-10).

With no legal antecedents, I was curious to learn how John Spencer's interests in legal topics developed, and who his mentors were. At the time John Spencer arrived in Cambridge (late 1960s), the Law Faculty was still relatively small (36 academic staff, compared to 92 in 2021), and some of the pre-War and immediate post-war doyens were still active. During our conversations, he reminisced on several of these, including Patrick Duff[13]  (Regius Professor of Civil Law) who, in his mid-60s, was coming to the end of his tenure, and S J Bailey[14] (Rouse Ball Professor of English Law), of similar vintage. Of the former, John's main impression was his appearance at lectures clad in mortar-board as well as gown, while of the latter, in retrospect, he felt compassion for someone suffering the early symptoms of dementia. Neither had played any significant role in John Spencer's education, but he highlighted four whose influence were formative and long-lasting.

First and foremost was Glanville Williams[15], who succeeded Bailey to the Rouse Ball Chair in 1968. When John first arrived at Selwyn, Williams had been made Reader (1966), and John's reminiscences echoed what several other ESA scholars have said in their own assessments. He recalled that Glanville Williams was " an astonishing man.  He was brilliantly intelligent, and amazingly single-minded and persistent.  He was ahead in identifying difficult legal problems and in pressing for solutions, and some of his solutions seemed far-fetched when he first proposed them.....  He was, personally, a little shy, and on first acquaintance seemed a rather austere individual, but he had kindness and he gave a lot of encouragement to junior members of the Faculty he thought worth helping." (Q16).

He singled out two areas where Williams had seminal influences on his career. The first was in Professor Spencer's  general understanding of the law, and his introduction to the notions of the 19th century legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham[16], a key figure in the founding of University College London (1826), the first sectarian university in England.

" I suppose in so far as there is any consistent current of philosophy behind English law - both criminal law and English law more generally -  you would say it is utilitarianism, and probably goes back to Bentham and his predecessors. Glanville Williams was, of course, a devoted follower of Jeremy Bentham.  I didn't know it at the time, but utilitarianism was central to much of what he taught, and it had a big influence on those people whom he helped and taught." (Q16).

The second impact related directly to aspects of John Spencer's own first period of research  - his focus on the unsatisfactory treatment of child witnesses by the criminal justice system. Here, he referred to Glanville Williams's pioneering campaigning for the use of "... tape recording of police interviews with suspects.  I think he put that forward in the 1950s, long before I was at Cambridge, and at the time nobody took it seriously. But everybody has it now..." (Q16),  something for which John Spencer himself campaigned successfully in the 1990s.

The esteem in which he still holds Glanville Williams is reflected in the fact that he mentions and lauds Glanville Williams six times in our conversations (equalled only by references to another personality, Lord Denning).

Ironically, John Spencer was not lectured by Williams on criminal law in his first year (Williams was away), but fell under another excellent scholar "J C Smith, later Sir John Smith[17], who was seconded to us from Nottingham University, where he held a chair.  He was one of the best lecturers I have ever heard.  Brilliant, clear, wryly amusing sometimes, and I can remember some of his more incisive comments now.... a charming man..." (Q16)

The two further outstanding influential doyens to whom Professor Spencer referred were the heroic C J "Jack" Hamson[18], and the idiosyncratic R Meredith Jackson[19].

The former was instrumental in launching John Spencer's publishing career "Professor Hamson lectured to me in Contract and Tort II....He had a slightly wild lecturing style and I have a suspicion he didn't prepare his lectures too thoroughly. His lectures always ran up to the hour, if not a minute beyond...We couldn't always follow what he said, but he was bursting with energy and enthusiasm.  Later on, he very much helped me... when he accepted an article I had written for the Cambridge Law Journal.....I think it was his approving of that article that was a key stroke of luck in my academic career. So I have reason to be grateful to his memory...," (Q17).

Hamson's forceful character was shown by "One day when I was a junior lecturer I met him in the corridors in the Old Schools and he abruptly said, "You will come with us on the coach to London!" [to Courts of Justice in London] and so I joined the trip as a marshal. Jack Hamson was a commanding personality, and I don't think any junior member of the Faculty would have dared to refuse!" (Q7).

Professor Meredith Jackson was a Reader when John Spencer arrived at Selwyn, and was promoted to the Downing Chair during John's undergraduate years. "Meredith Jackson was a big figure in the Law Faculty for many decades.....Jackson lectured to me, I think, in the year in which he retired.  He wrote a book ..."The Machinery of Justice in England" and I read it before I came to Cambridge.... Later, completely by chance, my wife and I bought a house next to him and his wife.  We became friends and we used to go round there often and drink glasses of sherry with them in the evening.  He said he was getting old and would I be interested in helping him produce a new edition of the book?  I agreed to do that....Sadly, Meredith Jackson had died by the time I had finished initially helping him ....I don't think he liked Glanville Williams much and thought he was too theoretical, but they were very similar in a key respect, which was that they looked through to the reality of things and were prepared to criticise legal institutions which they thought were defective.  Thanks to his book, he was a considerable reformer in his time....

 He was a sportsman of all sorts in his younger days.  He played rugger extensively at one time and ...was a big, gruff figure, a bit like a bear, and I think in his younger days he could be quite frightening, but I never found him other than a delightful man.... If I think of the people who were influences on my thinking, he was quite as important as Glanville Williams." (Q63-64). The last sentence emphasised the great admiration that John Spencer had for a man whom he only met in the latter years of his career (Jackson was eight years older than Glanville Williams).

Finally, John Spencer remembered the enigmatic Professor Clive Parry[20], whom he recalled with gratitude and respect. "He was extremely clever.  He could be very funny, and incisive. I can remember now some of the amusing things he said.  He could also be extremely difficult, and when I became a member of the Faculty Board, I saw some of the disruptive side of him in action.  But as far as I am concerned he was always helpful and I regard him as another of my benefactors.  He was kindly disposed towards me and was always friendly.... [Also] he was somebody else who could see the realities of a legal problem....[and] was irreverent enough to teach us what really happened rather than what was in the books... Yes, in his time he was one of the greats.  Sadly, he died relatively young : in his mid-60s.." (Q28). Perhaps some of John Spencer's progressive legal notions, and his witty, irreverent style mirror shades of the unconventional Parry[21].

Temporary Lecturer, Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration: University of British Columbia, Vancouver (1969-70)

Ambivalent towards an academic career, and still inclined towards his ambition of becoming a country solicitor, John nevertheless completed his LLB at Selwyn College (1969). At this point he reached a cross-roads, which turned out to be the major junction in his legal journey.

Matters were resolved by a somewhat unlikely actor - Paul Fairest - "who heard about and encouraged me to apply for the one-year temporary post in the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of British Columbia and then persuaded me to take it.  I went, and that was another turning point.  That is what finally stopped me becoming a country solicitor and set me on the road for being an academic." (Q27).

This was in the late 60s, and "Canadian universities, at that point, were expanding, and they were potentially overwhelmed with good Americans who wanted jobs counter-balance this they would offer temporary posts to people from the United Kingdom, and, if they liked them, invite them to stay longer.  It was in that context....[that] I was in Vancouver, in Canada for that year, and....when I first lectured." (Q43-44).

Cambridge academic: Selwyn College (1970-2015)

At the end of his contract in Vancouver, Cambridge called and John Spencer answered. Having experienced a successful introduction to lecturing, and acquiring a curiousity for legal topics that related to contract law, John Spencer was lured back to Cambridge  - this time for the duration of his academic career.

"The law side [of Selwyn] was expanding, and Paul Fairest needed help, and essentially he caused the college to engineer the creation of a post for me to come back and help him.  As I said, it was presented as a Research Fellowship.  I didn't do a lot of research, apart from writing that article, and I did a lot of teaching.  I hadn't entirely given up the idea of being a country solicitor, but I thought it would be a nice thing to do for a couple of years, and I got on well with Paul Fairest. So I went back to Selwyn, and rather expected it all to come to an end after a year or two when I would have to go off and do something else for a living.  But I was encouraged to apply for Faculty posts and obtained an Assistant Lectureship at the second attempt. That would have been in 1973, I think." (Q46)

The article to which Professor Spencer referred in the quotation above was his first scholarly offering, and was one of his longest articles to appear in the Cambridge Law Journal[22]. It was written, even at such an early stage in his career, in the witty, somewhat irreverent, but very open style that was to become his hallmark and which was to gain numerous favourable reviews over the years.

When asked about the circumstances of writing this article, he explained "It was stirred up by a particular case (L'Estrange v Graucob) which I remembered learning about when I was an undergrad and thinking was unfair.  It was thinking about the injustice that the rule caused which stimulated me to write the article." (Q47) 

"....I thought the idea I put forward in the article was useful because it found a way round a harsh legal rule, which was if you signed a contractual document  you were bound by all the terms, however onerous – and this however obscurely drafted was the contractual document you had signed....In the end it was all overtaken by legal events, because we had the Unfair Contract Terms Act [23], which just simply invalidated a range of onerous terms in consumer contracts, so my bright idea was never taken up by the courts." (Q47).

Professor Spencer's reminisence of the circumstances of his first paper illustrated a trait that also typifies his scholarly openness, namely his ability to self-criticise. This came when he mused on comments made in the paper apropos judgments peripheral to L'Estrange v Graucob, especially where he wrote amusingly about the eavesdropper theory introduced by Lord Denning[24] in Solle v Butcher[25] which John criticised because, inter alia, the eavesdropper would have to be a jack of all trades and have encyclopaedic knowledge. He explained his view on reflection nearly fifty years later. "I'm not sure, if I were writing it again today, I would be quite so irreverent towards Lord Denning who, in retrospect, I much admire....I thought it was very clever at the time.  I'm not sure it was so clever when I look back on it years afterwards!....I became a great admirer of Lord Denning later on.  Lord Denning  was a judge who could see his way through a legal thicket to produce a sensible solution at the end, and who expressed himself very clearly." (Q47-49).

University Assistant/Lecturer (1973-91)

Once he had his feet on the first rung of the academic ladder, John Spencer progressed steadily upward, and his commentary on those years speak of a more relaxed university academic milieu, before the "publish or perish" regimes, which he so disdained, had dawned. Firstly as University Assistant Lecturer (1973), when he was expected to lecture "in whatever the Faculty wanted you to teach,... the expectation was that you could teach anything that you had learned....I was asked to teach contract, initially....[and]  being on hand to take on other administrative jobs if the Law Faculty wanted you to do so." (Q50).

He commented that academic life was much less competitive than in modern times, and that during his vacations "nobody checked up on you; nobody minded.  We hadn't started calling the long vacation the "research period", as we have now renamed it, and I was content to have the liberty that academic life then gave you." (Q51).

Promotion to Lecturer followed in 1976, an event fuelled by "...the hope and expectation was that if you got as far as being an Assistant Lecturer you would then be promoted to University Lecturer.  It wasn't automatic. If you had not been in the least academically productive and you were known to be a bad lecturer and an awkward colleague, then you might have your assistant lectureship extended and be told you weren't likely to be moved up to lecturer. But it was pretty much an expected progression at that point." (Q52).

John served as lecturer for fifteen years, and during this time he established the two tracks in his research trajectory that have earmarked him for acclaim both locally and internationally.

The first was the move from contract/tort law into the broad area of common law criminal justice, where he has built an enviable international reputation, particularly in the area of evidence. The second was his developing a collaborative network documenting and exploring aspects of comparative European/EU/English criminal law, where he rapidly established a similarly authoritative standing. Identification of the causes of these major strategic shifts emerged during our conversations, and obviously, they are reflected in his impressive publications record.

Criminal law: children, evidence and the common law

His initial move into criminal law Professor Spencer narrowed down to the mid- 70s, when, unsurprisingly, one of his inspirational mentors was involved. "I had supervised criminal law ever since I started as a Junior Fellow at Selwyn, and it was about then that I got to know Glanville Williams personally. He was pushing me in that direction and got me involved....[with] the Society of Legal Scholars[26] [which] had a criminal law group, of which he was part, [as were] .... J.C. Smith [and] Tony Smith[27] ... I started going to meetings of that group with them and got much more closely involved in criminal law at that point." (Q53).

John Spencer's first major sortie into criminal law publishing was his ground-breaking project and resultant text (1990)[28] dealing with the plight of children as witnesses in the criminal justice system which he wrote in 1988-89. In answer to a question I posed following comments on a review by Roger Leng[29], Professor Spencer accepted that this was a personal campaign for reform of the law in which he had teamed up with a psychologist from Aberdeen (Rhona Flin[30]). "I'd spent quite a while being the tame lawyer of a group of people in related disciplines to do with the welfare of children who thought the law was very bad and they were pleased to find a lawyer who agreed with them and was prepared to articulate their criticisms of the law in a way which lawyers could understand and make sense of." (Q124).

John Spencer had taken his cue from the earlier, radical views of Glanville Williams: "I spent a number of years, first nudged in that direction by Glanville Williams, looking into and writing about the law relating to the evidence of children." (Q67).

When asked about the notions of child behaviour that gave rise to the particular problems he had identified on the broader legal canvas of giving criminal evidence, it transpired that in the late 80s John Spencer had tested his suspicions of the inadequacies of courtroom procedure on his own daughter. "What got me into that was teaching the law of evidence and then having children of our own and realising how inappropriate the legal rules about evidence were for dealing with children of that age. Asking little children if they understood the meaning of "the truth", for example.  It takes the mind of a great philosopher to define truth and asking a little child of five or six makes little sense.  I tried an experiment on our little daughter. I said..."Do you know what a liar is, Dorrie?"  She said, "Yes.  It's when you say you didn't do it."  I told that story to a number of audiences and I find the police particularly enjoyed that description." (Q67)

The initial impetus to write this seminal book grew out of a conference held in Cambridge in 1990, which he organised with Rhona Flin and others. It had been considered apposite  because "there was much discussion about it [at the time] in the media and among social workers, paediatricians, child psychiatrists and every other group of professionals connected with the welfare of children." (Q108).

Significantly, the conference had a strong influence on the development of statutory legal reform in this area. "The conference came first and the idea of the book grew out of the conference.  The conference papers should have been published well before the book...[but] we ended up publishing it [i.e. the conference] as a DIY exercise and distributing it through the Faculty office as cheaply as we could....we spread the word, but it was confusing because it appeared after the book instead of before it, as it should have been." (Q107)

Specifically, the conference "had a key influence on the Pigot Committee [31] because the members of the Committee attended the conference, and you can see from the report of the Committee how they were influenced by some of the things they heard there.  I think the book may then have helped along the process of making acceptable the ideas the Pigot Committee put forward." (Q109).

The conference and his seminal book made John Spencer a progressive national and international authority on the subject. It culminated in his being awarded a CBE in the 2017 Honours list for services in influencing reform of the law on the evidence of children in criminal proceedings and the protection of vulnerable witnesses.

His deep personal interest in statutory and judicial developments in this area never dimmed, but as he pointed out, since most of the reforms he and Rhona Flin had suggested in the First (1990) and Second (1993) editions have been subsequently addressed, there has, thankfully, been no need for further editions. Professor Spencer later teamed up with Michael Lamb[32] to organise another conference to follow up on developments worldwide.

"In 2011. ..[with]  Michael Lamb, this time a psychologist in Cambridge...  we brought together.....people from different parts of the world to tell us about how they had introduced pre-trial cross-examination for child witnesses and how it had actually worked and how it didn't cause the problems  that people here were worried about.  I think that conference was [also] influential because a fairly short time after, the Government made a Commencement Order bringing into force  S.28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 which permitted this, and which had been lying in the corner unimplemented since 1999. It was a change of opinion among judges, I believe, that helped the Government to nerve itself actually to bring the provision into force..." (Q119). This conference resulted in an edited volume in 2012[33].

In the intervening thirty years, Professor Spencer also produced two further seminal works on the English laws of evidence in criminal proceedings, both of which have been highly influential on the constant flow of statutory adjustments. These tackled two thorny topics with which successive governments had wrestled: evidence of bad character (2006), and hearsay evidence (2008)[34]. Both appeared during his most prolific period of creative research following his elevation to a personal chair in 1995, and readers are referred to his audio transcripts for details of them.

Criminal law: comparative EU, European, and English law

The second major milestone in the evolution of John Spencer's exploration of criminal law involved his acquiring a deep interest in, and appreciation of, the historical and politically-driven development of criminal law in Europe (in the broadest sense). The long-term evolution of national notions of how to deal with and treat criminals eventually gave rise to the common law and civil law systems, which have been, in recent years, overlain and strongly influenced by EU institutions and affiliated bodies.

John Spencer's involvement in such comparative studies was focussed during  sabbatical leave undertaken in the last year of his lectureship (1990-91) at the University of Paris II. The ramifications of this visit to France dominated his academic and research efforts in criminal law for the subsequent thirty years, and it is important to highlight this episode to understand Professor Spencer's academic trajectory since 1990.

He explained that his initial introduction to the setup in Paris was one that had a long history in the Faculty at Cambridge, and that his personal involvement was somewhat fortuitous. "There was a long-standing arrangement dating from when there was just one single and entire university of Paris, that the Paris Law Faculty got somebody from the English-speaking world to give a course the Anglo-American law of contract to their equivalent of an LLM.  This had started years back, and a number of Cambridge people had gone, including Basil Markesinis[35] ...and Brian Napier[36].  I think it was Basil Markesinis who suggested to Paris inviting me.  I was hesitant about it, but those who had been before encouraged me to go, and I did, so I reverted to teaching the law of contract to a class of French students. They were not French undergraduates; they were French graduates doing a fourth year course, the equivalent of our LLM....It was a smallish class, as we have in Cambridge.....[and] I had to lecture in French..." (Q58)

Once he had settled in, John Spencer "made contact with a number of French lawyers who were interested in English law and wanted to know more about it.  There was a big debate going on in France about reforming French criminal procedure at that time, and there was an interest in finding out about "Anglo Saxon criminal procedure".  In their minds they put together the United States of America and the British Isles as, "les Anglo-saxons," despite the differences between them.  I often found myself invited to lecture to groups of French magistrats about English, or English and American criminal procedure, and how it differs from French criminal procedure." (Q59)

Readership, Chair, and a legacy of European studies (1991-2015)

Once back from Paris, John was promoted to a Readership (1991). After a short period his post was converted to a personal chair (1995), and until his retirement twenty years later, John Spencer's name became synonymous with the study and teaching of European law and particularly its criminal legal systems.

Initially, through the many friends he had made in Paris "the Faculty used me to set up the first links of the Erasmus programme, and that led to the Double Maîtrise programme later on." (Q59). When asked to nominate the Faculty legacy for which he would like to be best remembered, Professor Spencer singled out these programmes, which were established to cement European ties. "I was proud of having set up the Double Maîtrise, and of setting up the Faculty's Erasmus programme, which we first started with the University of Poitiers."

Apropos the Erasmus work. "It was outside the Erasmus framework initially, because the message we had from the university was that with a collegiate university you can't run within the Erasmus scheme, but then a way was found and the scheme was expanded and I eventually handed over the running of it to John Bell [37]. As of now it still continues, I understand, with links with not only Poitiers but Utrecht and Regensburg and one of the universities in Madrid." (Q61).

Poignantly, the Erasmus programme has been thrown into uncertainty by the 2016 Referendum, and the UK's subsequent exit from the EU (as of December 31st 2020).  "What is going to happen to it with Brexit nobody at present knows. But I felt it was helping to stitch together the more united Europe in the future. It was one of the things that made me very sad about Brexit, that I could see all that crumbling." (Q61)

Sadly, and to the great regret of Professor Spencer, the Double Maîtrise course in the Faculty at Cambridge that he established as a result of his Paris sojourn, had already suffered a blow when "as you know, the Faculty eventually decided to close it down.  It did have some problems, and I regret, obviously, that the Faculty decided in the end not to continue with it.  It did attract a number of extremely good students, and I am still in touch with two or three of the best students who went to Cambridge through that course. Only yesterday [i.e. 19th November 2020]  I had a letter from a French participant who was part of the Double Maîtrise course who went back to Paris where he now is a leading member of one of the best known cabinet d'avocats which does criminal work in France. In his letter he reflected on his time at Cambridge and said how grateful he was for it, let. So I think it was a worthwhile enterprise, even if it doesn't continue." (Q61)

In addition to the teaching opportunities, John Spencer's Paris work resulted in a veritable surge of scholarly writings on matters European. This is reflected in his publications record where, of the eight books, eighteen journal articles, and nine book chapters he produced in the subsequent 18 years, three of the books, eleven of the articles, and seven of the book chapters were on European topics.

Professor Spencer recalled how he became involved in European legal matters and how it drew him into close contact with the EU administration and affected his teaching and research activities in the Faculty.  "Yes. I was much more involved in comparative criminal procedure, comparative criminal law; continuing to explain the common law rules in continental Europe and vice versa.....[while I became]  involved in the development of European Union criminal law thanks to being recruited to the Corpus Juris project. "(Q77)

Putting things into historical perspective, he explained that "EU law was not on the agenda when I was an undergraduate. Some people in the Law Faculty were anti-EU and nobody seriously imagined the UK would ever join, but of course it later did. 

The EU Commission was much troubled by the abuse of EU funds and the reluctance of the governments and the prosecution services of the different member states to pursue people who applied them dishonestly. The Commission set up a study group to consider what to be done about it.  They wanted somebody who would work on it who could work in French, which was still predominantly the language in which the EU operated.  I was an English criminal and criminal procedure lawyer who could work in French and so was recruited to this group and helped to formulate the idea of a European Public Prosecutor, which was floated in our report in 1997.  The idea was that a European Public Prosecutor would have power to prosecute for frauds on European Union finances, and that would include the power to issue arrest warrants which would work throughout Europe....This brought me into contact with EU officials and with colleagues in other member states who were interested in the whole idea of the EU and criminal law.

Thereafter I was repeatedly asked to take part in expert meetings on the subject.... [and] this it kept me busy for a number of years." (Q79).

The fate of his work with this EU study group was less satisfactory than Professor Spencer's years of effort might have warranted, both within the UK, and in the EU.

Notwithstanding the general level of EU scepticism in the UK, the report produced by the study group on the subject of a European Public Prosecutor  "was at first ignored by the British press, but [was] then "discovered" by an obscure, ultra-Eurosceptic magazine which presented it as a plot by Brussels to cause the UK to abolish the common law and introduce the inquisitorial system.....[which] set public opinion against it in this country. 

The Blair[38] government was in charge at the time and, like the governments of a number of member states, they thought it was a step too far and didn't want it. [O]ne of the first things the Coalition government[39] did was to pass an Act of Parliament which said the UK should have nothing to do with the European Public Prosecutor unless there was first a national referendum in favour: which meant, of course, that it would never happen. 

There are many academics whose brain-children are disregarded by the governments, but I must be the only academic whose idea was thought to be so bad that legislation was passed to change the national constitution to make it impossible for it ever to be implemented!  Eventually, an EU European Public Prosecutor for fraud was created, which is starting about now [i.e. late 2021]. The UK, of course, has had no part in it. "(Q81)

Of what eventually appeared at the EU level, Professor Spencer also had regrets: " I am sad about the structure of it.  Our group proposed something simple which would operate economically and efficiently, but the structure that finally emerged is enormous, complicated and expensive : so complicated that I can't seriously imagine it will ever succeed in prosecuting anybody for anything." (Q81).

A significant manifestation of Professor Spencer's collaboration with a wide range of European academic criminal lawyers was his excellent joint publication with Professor Mireille Delmas-Marty[40], which appeared in 2002: European Criminal Procedures[41].

He recollected his involvement in this weighty volume. "Mireille Delmas-Marty was a very dynamic French law professor with a reformist agenda and immensely energetic.... She set up this study group, European Study Group, because she was very interested in finding out more about how criminal procedure and evidence worked in countries other than France.  I was a member of this study group and the French version of the book grew out of this study group. ....There had already appeared straight translations of the book into Italian and into Spanish, [but] I thought an English version of it needed more than a straight translation....and I wrote a long introduction to the English language version....[as well as] either translat[ing] or supervis[ing] the translation..... [and updating] of the chapters that were originally written in was a work which occupied a lot of my time and energy over a number of years." (Q127)

Numerous issues where continental procedures differed from those of the common law were highlighted by Professor Spencer, and positive and negative comparisons are pithily presented in his inimitable style. But hanging over our conversation one could not ignore the retrospective fact that what was proposed, or hoped for, when this very readable volume was compiled, has at best, been thrown into great uncertainty by subsequent political events - viz Brexit. One example can be given. Professor Spencer in his Introduction suggested (in 2002) that apropos European Convention on Human Rights that Europe-wise we (i.e including the UK) were moving towards a common approach, particularly re. Articles 5 and 6.

Professor Spencer's response - 20 years later - now that Brexit has occurred,  was that it is still " difficult to say.  We know that the most fervent Brexiteers have an agenda for a Brexit 2 following the liberation of our legal system from the Luxembourg court system, which is the liberation of our legal system from Strasbourg, which probably carries with it condemnation of the European Convention on Human Rights....For the moment it's unlikely that even the present Brexit-minded Government and Parliament will go down that route because the criminal justice cooperation divisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement are specifically made contingent on the UK's continuing to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights.  So I don't think, for the moment, the influence of Strasbourg and the European Court of Human Rights is going to disappear." (Q131)

In the sense that the UK's ultimate legal and political relationship with the EU will only become apparent in the next few years as Brexit becomes an established reality, the future relevance of the great legacy that Professor Spencer bequeathed to UK criminal law scholarship in his European work is still to be resolved.

University and Faculty duties

During his years as Reader (1991-95) and Professor (1995-2005) (and even in retirement), John Spencer took his duties to the University and Faculty very conscientiously, driven by his gratitude of the "...wonderful privilege ....[of being] able to spend my working life in Cambridge University and I count myself most fortunate to have been allowed to do so." (Q176).

He had the fortune/misfortune of being Chairman of the Law Faculty for the period 1995-97. On the role itself, Professor Spencer was frank, but his attitude to the job in hand reflected his sense of duty. "As many colleagues have said who were Faculty Chairman, it was a difficult time.  When I was first Faculty Chairman I remember feeling rather like somebody who'd been told to drive a high-speed train without being told how to do it. I had little experience of university administration - at least at that I found the job a worry and wouldn't list it as one of the happier periods in my life. It was a job you were expected to do if you were a Professor and thought to have the administrative competence to do it." (Q86).

Apropos the Great Move from the Old Schools to the Sidgwick site in 1995, as John Baker recalled in his ESA tribute, the period leading up to the Faculty's move had been contentious, and had generated considerable debate and friction during his Chairmanship (1990-92). When I asked what role, if any, he had played, John Spencer replied that he had studiously avoided any, but had harboured private doubts. "[At] that time I was getting over serving as Faculty Secretary and had rather concentrated my energy on things other than Faculty politics.... I stood aside... [However] One matter on which I do agree with Prince Charles is choice of architects and I was worried about the decision to have such a modern building. But I took no part in the discussions about it..." ( Q71).

Later, inheriting the situation post facto, Professor Spencer's stint as Chairman (1995-97) involved, inter alia, trying to sort out the inevitable teething troubles that manifest themselves as Faculty settled in to what was a very complex building. In particular, he was called upon to rectify major structural issues caused by the new building integrating both Faculty offices and lecture rooms with the Squire Law Library. This entailed having to negotiate with university administration as well as the architects under Norman Foster[42].

"As the Law Faculty had predicted, the building as designed and constructed initially had a terrible problem with noise in the library. I inherited the job of Faculty Chairman from John Tiley [43] who had seen through the move and the final stages of the construction.  I found I was Faculty chairman when a lot of people were disappointed in the building that they now had, having been excited about the prospect of having it previously.

The big issue was the noise. It was impossible to run the library properly when it was exposed to all the clatter and conversations from people coming out of lectures.  Something had to be done about it.  The real problem was persuading the Estate Management Department to stand up to Fosters.  In the file I found a letter written by John Baker on behalf of the Faculty Board to Estate Management saying, "We are seriously concerned that this design will result in a noisy library and we request the Estate Management Department to obtain an independent expert report on the issue of noise."  There was a response from somebody in Estate Management saying, "Your request is noted but it would be offensive to Sir Norman and we shall not accept it." 

....Eventually, when the University nerved itself to insist on something being done, Fosters had the grace to be embarrassed about the difficulty and put forward a good suggestion for solving the problem: that big [glass] screen at the back of the reception desk which now looks as if it was always meant to be part of the design.  Once we had that, the noise problem disappeared and we started to like the building again.  The day came when I found myself crossing the threshold and finding my heart rose going into that building, instead of sinking as it had done almost every day when I had gone in there as Faculty Chairman. So I came to love the building in the end and I appreciate it, but I never thought that that would be the case when I was Faculty Chairman." (Q73).

Clearly, future generations of users of what is now the David Williams Building have a lot to thank John Spencer for.

One of Professor Spencer's outstanding moments as Faculty Chairman also stemmed from the Great Move. The official opening of the new building[44] by HM The Queen and Prince Philip (in his role of Chancellor) was the source of an amusing anecdote which illustrates John Spencer's ability to recount interesting facts in a droll, but perceptive manner - a trait that is brought out so delightfully in his published writings.

".... Her Majesty the Queen and the Chancellor of the university, the Duke of Edinburgh, came to open the building in 1996....I had the very great honour of showing her around the building, with John Tiley one pace behind, showing the Chancellor.....

The idea was that we should put displays on around the building which would be politely looked at by the royal party. We had a visit from an equerry from Buckingham Palace to talk about what these displays should be.  The equerry didn't seem to be particularly impressed by the idea of books and manuscripts so I said, half-jokingly, "I understand Her Majesty is very interested in horse racing, I wonder whether an exhibition of horse law would be appreciated?"  The equerry said, "That's a wonderful idea.  I'm sure Her Majesty and the Duke would enjoy that."  I told my Faculty colleagues about this and they divided two ways. Half of them said, "How shocking.  You've let us down again, what a stupid idea!"  The other half said, "If Her Majesty wants it, Her Majesty should have it."  So we put on a display of "horse law"

 Andrew Tettenborn [45] was a colleague in the Faculty then, and he entered into the spirit of it.  I don't think he knew one end of a horse from another when he started, but he went to a Newmarket firm of solicitors for a couple of days to learn about legal problems to do with racehorses; we borrowed a beautiful statue of a racehorse from the Racing Museum at Newmarket[46] and we made placards with pictures of horses involved in various lawsuits and, in large letters, a brief account of what it was about.  Andrew Tettenborn even managed to get a checked suit, as worn by bookies, to wear when he manned the stall.

The Queen and the Duke came round and smiled politely at the other displays, but when they saw this stall their eyes lit up.  Tettenborn began to talk about a case that involved an allegation of horse doping and explained how he thought it had been done. The Duke turned to Her Majesty and said, "No, I expect it was probably done such and such a way."  The Queen then said, "No, I expect it was probably done such another way."  There we had a three-way discussion on doping horses with Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh – who smiled for the rest of their visit!  I expect if there's one building opening they remember, I'll bet it's the opening the Cambridge Law Faculty." (Q87)

Several other administrative duties also befell John Spencer post-1995,  and he accepted them as part of his role as a professor. One for which he was well-suited was that of stand-in Director at CELS - the Centre for European Legal Studies. "This was because I'd got in with the Law Faculty EU lawyers, thanks to my interest in EU criminal law, and a stand-in was needed to run CELS when Alan Dashwood took sabbatical leave.  I can't claim to have run an innovative programme, but it was one of the jobs that I did.  Some years later, when Catherine Barnard [47] was Director, I stood in again when she was on sabbatical leave." (Q82).

Also included in necessary chores were membership of the Board of Scrutiny, UL

Syndicate Board, and the Exam Complaints Review. " The Board of Scrutiny is a body under the constitution of the university which publishes a review every year and draws attention to things that need attention drawn to them.  Things were not altogether happy at the university at the time and I remember we ended up ruffling the feathers of various sections of the University by our reports. The University Library Syndicate was, and I expect still is, a very civilised body.  We had the impression that the library was well run.  The meetings were well conducted.  I think we did a useful job supporting the librarian.  It was very quiet compared with the Board of Scrutiny. The Exam Complaints Review Committee, the proper name of which I forget, was something I did towards the end of my career. We were the court of final appeal on complaints by students about things that had gone wrong in examinations.  Some of the complaints were obviously ill-founded.  But some caused us real disquiet and I hope we ensured justice was done by what we recommended.  The main lesson I learnt from that was how well we do things in the Law Faculty compared with some other faculties. I felt reassured by the solidity of our examining process in the Law Faculty." (Q88)

One particularly important role that Professor Spencer fulfilled, and which epitomised his often expressed sense of frustration at opportunities missed over the years to bring about change in the English criminal legal system, was his role in 1999-2001 as consultant to Sir Robin Auld's[48] report Review of the Criminal Courts of England and Wales.

"Sir Robin Auld was the Director of this review, with power to appoint consultants. He asked me to be a consultant to help him learn more about continental criminal procedure and whether there were any lessons to be learnt.  He said, "Do you know some criminal procedure lawyers in continental Europe who are English speakers who could come to an English language seminar?" With the help of the Law Faculty and of his administrative staff we arranged a seminar. 

The proceedings were confidential and he could ask them the direct questions about how things actually worked and they were able to give him honest answers.  Some of the things he learnt there influenced the recommendations that he made.  His report, I thought, was excellent and I wish the government of the day [49] had accepted all of it instead of cherry picking some of the parts  which it thought would attract favourable headlines in the newspapers. 

One of his central recommendations was that we should move away from having a magistrates' court and a Crown Court and have a tripartite division, as in many other countries. So we'd have the magistrates' court dealing with the small things only, which is what it was set up for centuries ago; Crown Courts with juries only for the really important things; and an intermediate court staffed by a professional judge and two lay magistrates, like the Crown Court today when hearing appeals from magistrates' courts, to deal with the bulk of other cases.  This was ill-received both by the Criminal Bar and by the magistrates and it never happened.  I think it's a great shame it didn't because I think it would have solved a number of problems which existed then and exist as badly or worse today." (Q89).

Retirement (2013) and some unconventional views on an imperfect world

Professor Spencer retired at the end of 2013, but only withdrew fully from Faculty and University matters at the end of 2020, as we began our ESA interviews.

He "continued to supervise for six years after retirement.  In Selwyn you have to give your room up when you retire, as in most colleges, and I was wondering what to do when Murray Edwards College approached and, most kindly, said, "Would you like to be a By-Fellow?  We can give you an office if you're willing to supervise our students."  So ....I continued to supervise in criminal law and criminal procedure and criminal evidence.....[but] I decided to stand down before the Coronavirus outbreak occurred, because I shall be 75 at my next birthday .... I'm sad not to be doing it, though relieved not to be involved in the problems of this year.  Yes, and I miss the students." (Q95). The routine of nearly fifty years is now broken, and readers can sense the regret in his voice.

One role that he took on in retirement did give Professor Spencer great satisfaction. This was his acting as the Vice-Chancellor's Deputy. As he explained "The Vice-Chancellor has "unpaid stunt doubles" to stand in on social occasions when [he] has something more important to do.  To my surprise I was approached to ask if I would be one of these and did it for two. And for the first time since I entered Cambridge as an undergraduate, I found I suffered from" imposter syndrome", when I sat on the Vice-Chancellor's throne in the Senate House to distribute university degrees.  In the course of this time I must have conferred hundreds of Cambridge degrees.  I also had to preside at one or two discussions in the Senate House and attended various University Sermons, and also organised hospitality for the visiting preacher.  It's a wonderful title to be called a Deputy Vice-Chancellor.  It's a certain amount of work, but it's really nothing like as important as the title suggests.  I think nothing has ever made me feel prouder, however, than sitting on the Vice-Chancellor's throne in the Senate House conferring degrees in the name of the University." (Q96). Again, pride in the University and his gratitude for being there shines through this recollection.

A grand occasion that epitomised John Spencer's career-long achievements in the furtherance of common sense and compassion in the workings of English criminal law was the awarding of his CBE and the obvious pride that he derived from this national recognition. When I asked him to pick out his most fundamental contribution to legal scholarship and teaching, and that for which he would most wish to be remembered, he answered "I suppose improving the rules of procedure and evidence in relation to children and vulnerable witnesses.  It was in that area that what I wrote and said produced the most obvious practical changes and it was the reason that the Queen was kind enough to award me a CBE.  So I think that must be the thing I'm mainly remembered for." (Q176).

The award itself clearly came as a surprise, but the arrangements left a strong impression on him. "I was astonished when I got a letter asking me if I'd accept the honour of a CBE.  I first thought it must be some kind of joke or possibly a scam.  There was a telephone number to ring for further details and I rang it, half expecting to get some foreign voice saying it was available if I sent a few thousand pounds somewhere by Western Union, but it was genuine.  There was a magnificent ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles presided.  It was a sad occasion, in a way, because it was just after the Grenfell fire and while the ceremony was taking place the Queen was visiting the victims of the fire [50].  Despite that unhappy national background, the occasion was a wonderful day.  And Buckingham Palace is to be congratulated on the smooth arrangements which made us all feel genuinely welcome." (Q97).

John Spencer's reacquaintance with rural living has resulted in his locating to a small Norfolk village - as close an analogue as one might find to north Dorset in reasonable proximity to Cambridge. Here, his public-spiritedness has found an outlet in parish affairs, including "doing a round of church fetes and so forth" where his legal knowledge has been adapted to local government law. "In this Norfolk village [Trunch] from which I'm talking to you now, I find myself a member of the Parish Council.  And there I see replayed all the sort of personal issues which I'd seen played out with larger egos in the university over a great many years of serving on committees." (Q95)...."I try to do that conscientiously and I find myself trying to get my head inside local government law which is not a subject which I was previously familiar with." (Q98).

A perusal of the council notes for the last year or so shows that Professor Spencer takes these duties seriously and it might be noted that in the minutes of the Trunch Parish Council for 3rd February 2021, Cllr J Spencer was nominated and elected as Vice-Chairman of the Council[51]. John Spencer clearly intends to benefit his new community in the same generous spirit with which he served his University and Faculty.

Reflecting on John Spencer's retreat to Norfolk, and his ability to immerse himself in the life of a small village, one is inevitably reminded of his rural upbringing in Dorset. As he pointed "Being brought up in a village and then a small town in Dorset many years ago, at least I understand how things function in villages and am aware of the advantages and disadvantages. I think that makes me feel more comfortable here [i.e. in Trunch] than if I'd lived in a town my whole life and not been brought up in the country." (Q.175).

I suspect though that this is also a manifestation of John Spencer's predisposition to somewhat unconventional views and an affinity with plain speaking, and a pithy writing style that expresses his like of home-truths and common sense. The latter makes his papers and publications so readable. It could also account for John espousing the prophetic views of his great mentor Glanville Williams (for example, in proposing technological innovations in taking evidence from children, and Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism), who greatly influenced John Spencer's own attitudes.

A similarly-unconventional personality whom Professor Spencer came to admire also falls into this category: the great Lord Denning, to whom we have already been introduced. John Spencer, whose own writing style is very readable and "accessible", greatly admired Denning's  approach.  "One of the reasons that I and other people liked Lord Denning, was that he could see his way through all the case law to what was the essence of the problem." (Q55), and it was a gift that he (John) also honed.

John Spencer had the privilege of interviewing Lord Denning in 1991 for the BBC World Service, and he tells a touching anecdote of this occasion. "Lord Denning was 92 or, to be exact, as he told us, 92 and a half when we took the interview.  He had largely retired from public life following criticism of some embarrassing things that he'd said in Parliament and elsewhere and the person who was producing the programme said, "Are you serious about interviewing Denning?  Isn't he senile?"  I said, "I think we may find that, like a lot of very old people, he has good days and bad days and let's see if we get him on a good day." 

We did get him on a good day and he gave us a beautiful interview, most of which was used in the BBC World Service programme.  I've often thought of what he said to me after the interview and I quoted it in lectures sometimes.  He said, "Well, John," he said (he liked to be informal), "What do you teach your students in Cambridge then?"  I said, "Er ... um … this and that," and he said, "Do you teach them about Magna Carta?"  I said, "Well, no, I don't, actually."  He said, "Well, it's very important."  He said, "I always have my copy here and let's read that article together."  He solemnly read out the article about no man being deprived of his life or his property without a judgment of his peers or the law of the land. (I can't quote it from memory.)  I later looked up – you couldn't do it online; you had to do it in citators then. All the recent citations to Magna Carta in judgments that I found by Denning in his judgments.  It had plainly guided his thinking in his whole time as a judge.  Out of respect for him I would then always mention Magna Carta later if there was an appropriate occasion to do so." (Q69)

A further similarity with John Spencer's own individualistic style was Denning's rural background. "He was a Hampshire man from a modest background and he had a Hampshire accent which is rather similar to a Dorset accent, from the county next door where I was brought up.  A lot of people lose their original accents when they move around but some don't and clearly Denning never had.  I think it may have helped him in his practice at the Bar initially because he sounded so different from the normal run of barristers . It probably meant people pricked up their ears and listened to him.  So he didn't cultivate it; I think he just couldn't lose it. There was a great charm in listening to him." (Q70). Listeners to his own interviews herein, will occasionally pick up traces of John Spencer's own pleasant Dorset burr.

Despite John Spencer's clear admiration for the Cambridge University traditions, he does have some unconventional views on the collegiate system, which has formed the framework for Cambridge for the last 800 years. As he sees it, the colleges, whilst performing an invaluable function for individual fellows and members by forming a haven from which to perform their duties and maintain a social life, do not have a balanced relationship with the university per se.

"The trouble is the present relationship between the colleges and the university.  I have a feeling that the colleges have more influence than they should and absorb a lot of money, more than is really required, and that their influence is not always beneficial.

I think the undergraduate admissions should be managed centrally, so people should state the preference for the college they'd like to go to if they're successful, but [that] the Faculty should organise the admissions: instead of our present fantastically complicated system – vigorously defended, of course, by those who have made it their life work to be admissions tutor in their particular college.

.......[Also] when I was first a Fellow at Selwyn the total size of the fellowship was about a third of what it is now, but we still have about the same number of undergraduates.  Fellows of colleges, even if they're not on the college payroll and their stipends are paid by the university, consume a lot of resources.  What are they doing?  Why are they necessary?  What really is our function?  I've always thought the main function of the university was teaching undergraduates to a high level, and Oxford and Cambridge fulfil the sort of role that the Grandes Écoles do in France: training up the cleverest young people in the country to lead it in the future.  Do we need the present college structure, with such a large complement of staff, to do that?  I am sceptical." (Q101)

Similarly, Professor Spencer several times referred to the fundamental changes that have been wrought in the university's attitude towards research and publishing, which bureaucrats and administrators have imposed over the years to "improve" the university's performance in the modern world. This trend has run counter to his own style and attitude towards publications in general, which he has maintained over nearly fifty years, and which is now somewhat out of kilter with the currently received wisdom.

"[While] I've changed my views sometimes about cases that I've written about....have I changed my method of approach?  No, not particularly, or my style of writing, no.  I still aim to do what I did when I started, which is to write clearly and only write when I actually had something to say. Happily my career started before the days of "publish or perish". It's now a luxury to be able to choose whether to write, or not, if you're in academic life." (Q167).

"It has always seemed to me that a lot of law is not as complicated as lawyers like to make it. ..... I always thought, "I want to make this accessible not just to lawyers who specialise in a field, but make it understandable to any intelligent layperson who wants to know about it....It often seemed to me that the longer a legal article is, the less anybody is likely to read it, and the less it is likely to have any influence.....I am sad that there is, increasingly, a divorce between what academic lawyers are expected to do, which is to keep churning out longer and longer articles for more and more specialised journals (preferably  with "International," in the title), in order to score marks for the Research Assessment Exercise or Research Excellence Framework, or whatever it is now called, and less and less encouragement to write anything which anybody might read other than appointments committees or assessment boards." (Q55).

A man for all seasons: a conspectus

Readers wishing to find a source that encapsulates the attributes and contrasting characters of this erudite and homely scholar can do worse than browse through the slim volume that was published by John Spencer to mark his retirement from the Faculty in 2013[52].

In our interview I asked him about it, and readers can refer to the transcript to the third interview for more details. In essence, it is a collection of case notes that John Spencer had published on a variety of legal topics in the Cambridge Law Journal from 1970 to 2013, i.e. over 43 years, and was organised by one of his long-term colleagues Catherine Barnard.  As he explained, "When Tony Weir[53] died, Catherine Barnard had arranged for Hart to publish a collection of his case notes in memoriam.  I much enjoyed that book, and said that to mark my retirement I'd like the Faculty to publish a collection of my case notes.  I'd put a lot of work into them over many years. I'd enjoyed writing them. I thought they were a significant part of my output and I'd like to have them put together as a book. She took that idea up and organised it and I'm most grateful to her for doing so." (Q164)

The volume gives a bird's-eye-view of cases upon which John Spencer had commented in his inimitably readable, insightful and quick-witted style, and the interview shows how his views on some of the cases have altered over the decades. So far, so predictable. But what the volume also does is provide a window into the other Spencerian world of rural humour by emphasising his long-standing interest in the one of his hobbies, into which he is now free to indulge: namely, his love of Punch & Judy shows.  Significantly, this is displayed prominently before readers by forming an arresting cover to the book.

It immediately harks back to his childhood in post-war Dorset. "I remember watching a Punch and Judy show when I was a very small boy on the beach at Weymouth and finding it was fascinating, as indeed my grandchildren now find Punch and Judy shows fascinating today.  I then got into doing them myself because my mother was interested in handicraft and, for some reason or other, got a pattern for making Punch and Judy puppets and made some.  Then, after her death, we found them and I took them over.

Then there was a party for children, children of the Faculty and children of the college staff at Christmas. In Selwyn College one year we were asked to think up things we could do to amuse the children and I thought I'll have a go at a Punch and Judy show.  I found I could do it and I've continued to do it ever since.  I think the high point in my Punch and Judy show performances was when I actually managed to do one in Latin as entertainment after the annual Praelectors' Dinner in 2016.  I had to have some help from a Classics don at Murray Edwards to translate, "That's the way to do it," into Latin but I managed to get the phrase and it sounds quite good in Latin as well as it does in English." (Q172).

In memorium, one can do no better than reflect  - "Classics, Law, Comedy, and Erudition" - as a fitting summary of the talents and character of John Rason Spencer who served the Faculty, University, and his chosen profession so tirelessly for fifty years.


[1] But they were born in Australia (1948) and New Zealand (1947), respectively, and did not arrive in the UK until their careers had progressed someway.

[2] She was born in 1937.

[3] Sir John Hamilton Baker (b. 1944- ). Downing Professor of the Laws of England (1998-2011).

[4] There were 6-7000 reported cases in 1950-51.  See

[5] Richard Beeching (1913- 1985). Commission by the Conservative Government of Harold Macmillan.

[6] Sturminster Newton station closed 7th March 1966, and is now a car park.

[7] The school has since been demolished.  See a photo-history (2011) of the derelict establishment recorded in 1970. The author, Steve Haskett, was also a pupil there (1960-67) and would have overlapped with John Spencer.

[8] Sir David Harrison (b. 1930). Vice- Chancellor University of Keele (1979-84), V-C University of Exeter (1984 - 94).

[9]  George Augustus Selwyn (1809-78), Bishop of New Zealand (1841-69), Bishop of Lichfield (1868-78) (there was an overlap).


[10] William Owen Chadwick (1916-2015), Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History (1958-68), Regius Professor of History (1968-83), Master, Selwyn College (1956-83).

[11] Dame Rosalyn Higgins, (b. 1937), Professor of International Law, LSE (1981-95),  President, ICJ (2006-09).

[12] Moved to Hull in mid-70s and became Professor.

[13] Patrick William Duff (1901- 1991), Regius Professor of Civil Law (1945-68).

[14] Stanley John Bailey (1901-1980), Rouse Ball Professor of English Law (1950-68)

[15] Glanville Llewelyn Williams. (1911-1997). Rouse Ball Professor (1968-78).

[16] Jeremy Bentham. (1748-1832), Legal and moral philosopher.

[17] Sir John Cyril Smith. (1922- 2003), Professor of Law, Nottingham (1957-87).

[18] Charles John Joseph (Jack)Hamson (1905-1987). Professor of Comparative Law (1955-73). Captured in Battle of Crete 1941 (Special Operations Executive), German POW (1941-45).

[19] Richard Meredith Jackson, (1903-86), Downing Professor (1966-70). 

[20] Clive Parry (1917-1982), Professor of International Law (1969-82).

[21] Sir John Baker cited equally revealing aspects of Parry's character - see Q36 & 52 of his ESA interview:

[22] 1973. Signature, consent, and the rule in L'Estrange v.Graucob. CLJ,  32(1), 104-22. It is reprinted in his 2014 retirement tribute  Noted but not invariably approved.  Hart, 268pp

[24] Baron Denning of Whitchurch, Alfred Thompson Denning. (1899-1999),  Master of the Rolls, (1962-82).

[26] At that time known as the Society of Public Teachers of Law.

[27] Professor Anthony Terry Hanmer (Tony) Smith (b. 1947), Dean, Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington (2007- ). Gonville & Caius (1972-81).

[28] 1990, The Evidence of Children - the Law and the Psychology (with Rhona Flin) (Blackstone Press,). A 2nd Edition appeared in 1993.

[29] Roger Leng, Professor of Law, Warwick, earlier Lecturer Birmingham University.

[30] Rhona Flin, now Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology University Aberdeen.

[31] His Honour Thomas Herbert Pigot (1931-2008), Common Serjeant City of London (1984-1990). Head, advisory committee on child evidence in 1988 - Pigot Report (1989).

[32] Michael E. Lamb,  Emeritus Professor Department of Social and Developmental Psychology, University of Cambridge. Born Zambia, University of Natal (1972), Yale University (PhD "The relationships between infants and their mothers and fathers", 1976).

[33] Children and Cross-Examination (with M. E Lamb) (eds) (Hart Publishing, 2012).

[34] 2006 Evidence of Bad Character (Hart Publishing) 2009 (2nd Edit), 2016 (3rd Edit);  and 2008 Hearsay Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (Hart Publishing), 2014 (2nd Edit).

[35] Sir Basil Spyridonos Markesinis (b. 1944).  Professor of Common and Civil Law, UCL (2001-), Lecturer in Law, Cambridge (1978-86).

[36] Brian W. Napier,  Professor of Information Technology Law, Queen Mary College, London (1989-94),  Lecturer in Law Cambridge (1975-88).

[37] John Bell , Professor of Law (2001- ); Director Centre for Public Law, Cambridge

[38] Anthony Charles Lynton Blair (b. 1953).  UK Labour Prime Minister (1997- 2007).

[39] Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition 2010-15.

[40] Mireille Delmas-Marty (b. 1941). Professor, Collège de France Paris I (1990-2002), Member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences; Coordinator Committee of Experts, EU project "Corpus Juris"

[41] 2002 European Criminal Procedures (eds. with Delmas-Marty), CUP, 775pp.

[42] Sir Norman Robert Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank  (b. 1935-).

[43] John Tiley (1941-2013), Professor of the Law of Taxation (1990-2008).

[44] 8th March 1996.

[45]  Andrew Tettenborn,  Professor of Commercial Law, University Swansea, previously Exeter (Professor) and Cambridge (Lecturer).

[47] Catherine Sarah Barnard, Professor of European Union and Employment Law (2008-).

[48] Sir Robin Ernest Auld (b. 1937) former Lord Justice of Appeal in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales (1995-2007).  Author of Review of the Criminal Courts of England and Wales by Right Honourable Lord Justice Auld September 2001.

See Sir Robin's comments on his report in his ESA interview (Q7 & 8):

See also:

[49] Tony Blair's 2nd administration.

[52] "Noted, but not Invariably Approved", Hart, 268pp. 

[53] J. A (Tony) Weir  (1936-2011),  Reader in Law, Trinity College.