Roman Law Revival: Peter Birks, Oxford and Elsewhere

Your blogger has recently been regularly using for work F. H. Lawson’s The Oxford Law School, 1850-1865 (1968). It is in some ways rather dated, but it has not been superseded.  Your blogger was using it enough that he decided it might be helpful to have his own copy, even though there seems to be no competition for use of the copy in Edinburgh University Law Library. He tracked down an example through an internet retailer. The book still had its dust jacket, protected by a (the?) previous owner in a plastic sleeve. An affectionate inscription on the recto of the front fly leaf records its donation by a wife to her husband as Christmas present in 1973 “to remind [him] of four happy years, 1945/49”. Apart from the inscription, the book does not seem much used. Presumably the recipient studied law at Oxford between 1945 and 1949.

What is interesting is a collection of newspaper clippings tipped in between the front board and the flyleaf. These are mainly obituaries, dating between 1977 and 2004. One can find those of Sir William Hart, who taught at Oxford before the Second World War, and was reappointed, holding the post very briefly, University Lecturer in Law in 1946, of G. C. Cheshire who was Vinerian Professor between 1944 and 1949, of F.H. Lawson, Professor of Comparative Law, 1948-64, previously a Fellow of Merton and then All Souls Reader in Roman Law, and Peter Carter, Fellow of Wadham 1949-80. It is conceivable the owner had known these men during his studies. The only other obituary is that of Peter B. H. Birks, whom he could not have known as a fellow-student, Peter being at least 10-15 years younger.

The previous owner’s interest in Peter seems to have come from the well publicised debate in 1993 arising from the introduction of a course “Introduction to Law” as an alternative to Roman Law (Civil Law) in the first year of legal studies at Oxford in the name of “progress” and “to bring Oxford into line with other universities” to quote from the clippings on the topic also tipped into the book. Some certainly saw this as a typical example of the trahison des clercs, with which most academics become all too familiar. It is interesting to note the novel course did not last long. Currently Oxford students take the course, “A Roman Introduction to Private Law”.

In Edinburgh first-year Civil Law (as we call it) is optional, and has been since the late 1960s; it is the most popular of the options open to first-year law students, the class being sufficiently large that securing adequate tutorial coverage is an issue. Roman law has always been taught at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen (though the name of the course can now vary from the traditional “Civil Law”, and it is a requirement for admission to the Scots bar. What is interesting is the current progressive spread of the subject from the older universities to the new, such as Edinburgh Napier and Stirling. ‘Progress” is now Roman law.