32056: Corpus Law Diary TT 6
No one should be unmoved by the terrible injustices in this world, particularly with racial inequality especially highlighted by recent events in the USA, raising awareness of racial injustice in the UK as well in the last few days. I am certainly thinking hard about what I should be doing to support meaningful change. One thing that gives me a small amount of hope for the future is how a law degree can offer skills and material to help directly and we have a very diverse group of students. Nationally 69% of the students taking a law degree identify as female, and 37% have stated they are from minority ethnic groups (data from 2017-18: https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/law-careers/becoming-a-solicitor/entry-trends/). Those are amazing figures, though representation still dwindles at more senior levels of legal careers and there is a lot more to be done. The University of Oxford has a lot further to go, but is at least making some progress. The latest data has been delayed for reasons I do not know but the 2018 data the University has provided suggests that minority ethnic groups in the University are now reaching the same proportion of 18-25 olds in the UK, at 18.3% according to the 2011 Census and taking the 2018 intake of students (https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/facts-and-figures/admissions-statistics/undergraduate-students/current/ethnicity?wssl=1).
For comparison, there are campaigning groups highlighting a wider picture than just headline statistics, one which I recently head about a petition from being Common Ground, Oxford (https://commonground-oxford.com/). Another is https://www.antiracistplatform.co.uk/ which is a university wide platform.
There is much further to go, and when you break down these figures they show the significant problems remaining, particularly in which ethnic groups are still underrepresented. And much more than that, there are serious questions about how to address system disadvantage for many groups, whether linked to ethnicity, sex, gender, disability or many other factors. Entry into university is one thing, but the system needs to help students achieve their potential. It's something we in Corpus are reminded of all the time as we are lucky to have a very diverse group of undergraduates studying law. There is also a serious question for academics to ask ourselves in relation to the nature of our work, and thinking about how and if we are genuinely serving society. We chose to be academics very often in order to pursue truth and contribute to the development of the law, though research and teaching. What truth, and what contribution, should we strive for?
With those thoughts in the background, my working week featured a mix of teaching, administrative or enabling jobs and research. My heaviest teaching is in October and November, and my teaching now is correspondingly lighter. Monday began with two seminars online to listen to, think about and try to discuss in a way that helped the speaker develop the ideas even further. The first was working out why, if we are willing to strip from a criminal the profit of his crime, we do not strip cash which was offered to another to commit a crime: we would strip it as the other's profit once paid, but until it is paid we do not. The second was on how to understand the study of law, taking as its starting point one famous and one underappreciated legal writer and showing how their work around a century ago influenced the understanding of law as partly based on its history and a comparison with other countries. They were the work of talented students working towards doctorates in law.
I then had a chance to work with some younger students on tort law after that with what has become the norm this term: online teaching. Teaching has been disrupted because Covid-19 hit just before the first year students were about to take exams in Criminal Law, Constitutional Law and Roman Law, but we are getting back onto things now. The first years are doing Contract Law every week, and Tort Law every other week, and Tort (along with Criminal and Roman) are subjects I teach them. Tort law provides general protection for harms that happen to you, vindicating your interests and providing compensation; the most common form is negligence: that I should have taken reasonable care not to cause you harm while I was, for example, driving my car, designing a house, filling in legal paperwork etc. This time in tort we were looking at difficult situations where we have to decide if you should take care not to harm someone else. You might think I should always take care not to hurt people nearby, but the law is far more specific than that, and we were particularly looking at why tort law protects against personal injury and property damage more than purely economic losses, like profit that would have been made but was not. But there are exceptions to that rule. So, if you ask me my opinion on what car you should buy (as in fact a friend did this week funnily enough), if I act as if I am an expert, and assume a responsibility to you, I might have to pay compensation if you rely on my poor advice. It's partly why sensible law students, who are often asked for advice on legal questions when they get home or chat to non-lawyer friends (classic examples being about cutting down a neighbour's hedge or consumer contracts…) learn quickly to add a little disclaimer, or phrase their ideas as questions and occasionally as mere suggestions. The students got into this material quite well. The essays had been due the night before, and marking them before the tutorial gave me a chance to see what the students understood and how I could help them most. Essays might be hated, but they are a great opportunity to hone legal thinking, if they are combined with careful analysis before, during and after the tutorial.
Most Oxford tutors have job roles with different responsibilities both within their College (Corpus in my case) and in their Faculties (Law for me). None of my College committees met this week, having done the week before and coming the week after, but there were Faculty committees. I spent a day preparing for the annual meeting of the teachers of criminal law, the subject group I run in the Faculty. There's a lot of paperwork and curriculum and teaching arrangements to sort out, as well as a review of the examinations which recently finished. As part of our work to diversify the curriculum, we asked all law students if they wanted to recommend any materials for the reading list, in addition to any the academics had found this year. I therefore spent time reading and considering those suggestions, review the teaching provision across the university, check the syllabus and apply for funding from the Faculty to cover the cost of lecturing. Huge numbers of individuals and organisations are already suffering from Covid-19 related losses, with financial losses nowhere near as important as the loss of life and suffering. Nonetheless, particularly given the predicted millions of pounds lost in income next year for the Faculty of Law itself, let alone the Colleges, we have to make sure we are making the right choices about funding and support for students.
Amongst these moments of external activity, I sit in a shed office, working on writing a book. It's harder than I can say, because you should be aiming to write something that changes how a reader understands the law, not just the bare minimum of not wasting the time it takes them to read the words. My work is exploring how the law has developed, particularly at the interface of tort and crime, and trying to explain it. I look at around 150 years, and about 10 countries. It is largely doctrinal work, looking at the rules and ideas themselves, with only what references to the social, political or economic context as I can reasonably make. It is not an area that has been worked on much before, but great minds have scattered what might be useful insights amongst hundreds of thousands of pages of thousands of books. The lack of access to a library since March, the cancelled international trips for materials and discussion groups, and the added personal burdens at home mean progress is slower. I recently had an online seminar with colleagues in Brazil, and fire off emails around the world; the College library very helpfully arranged for some scans of texts from the early 1900s I wanted to look at, so sometimes help is actually very close.
Still, there are days of reading just to work out a footnote to ideas no one has worked out before and which probably will not be noticed now, balanced by a couple of days here and there where the words leap onto the page and smile back at you. Normally, even in high summer, the sun has gone in and my garden fairy lights guide me back to the house by the time I am done. Tonight I was kept up explaining why “intention” means something different in tort law than in criminal law, and indeed, means multiple different things in different parts of tort law or some similar problem. While there just is not the time I need, it can be thrilling to try to work out a “truth” based on evidence and argument.