Obituary: Ian Douglas Willock, legal academic

Prof Emeritus Ian Willock: Liberal Catholic academic committed to making legal system fairer and more accessible
Prof Emeritus Ian Willock: Liberal Catholic academic committed to making legal system fairer and more accessible
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Born: 7 May, 1930, in Perth. Died: 3 October, 2013, in Dundee, aged 83

Ian Willock, emeritus professor of jurisprudence at the University of Dundee, was a committed believer in the use of law as a means of achieving a fairer society, a ­stimulating teacher of legal ­theory, and a good spotter of legal talent, as well as a contributor to liberal, intellectual Catholicism in Scotland.

Born in Perth, he was brought up there and, after his father was appointed principal teacher of modern languages at Robert Gordon’s College, in Aber­deen. After taking MA and LLB degrees at Aberdeen University (as part of a significant group of emergent legal academics), after national service in the Intelligence Corps, he went to the University of Michigan for a year on a fellowship. On his return, he qualified as an advocate, and moved to Glasgow University to undertake a PhD, following which he took up a senior lectureship in Aberdeen.

His thesis, converted into a monograph, was published by the Stair Society (which promotes the study of Scottish legal history) under the title The Origins and Development of the Jury in Scotland. In 1965, before that book was published, he was appointed, aged just 35, to the new post of professor of jurisprudence in the recently founded faculty of law in Queen’s College, Dundee, then part of St Andrews University.

He was, in effect, the only full-time professor, as the other nominal full-time professor was also master of Queen’s College. As a result, Ian was thrust into the deanship of the law faculty at an early stage in his career, and at a time when much was going on, including the introduction of honours LLB teaching, and the split of Dundee from St Andrews. Incidentally, because the only honorary degree at both universities was an LLD, as dean of law he had to deliver all laureation addresses – a total of some 40 – to all honorary graduands of whatever discipline, or none.

But he was heavily occupied at the same time as head of the department of jurisprudence. This was, in itself, quite an onerous task, as teaching jurisprudence – not a popular subject – was nevertheless a Dundee speciality. There were courses under that name in all three years of the ordinary degree, as well as several honours options. He gathered around him ia disparate group of academics, notably: the late Abe Harari, scourge of the influential legal philosopher HLA Hart; the late Walter Kamba, who became first vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe; and the late Neil McCormick, subsequently regius professor of public law at Edinburgh University.

Former colleagues still speak warmly of the interest, kindness and support he provided to those at the beginning of their careers, and he was proud of their successes. It is invidious to pick out names. However, among the several now holding chairs, two who come to mind are Fraser Davidson, professor and head of law at Stirling University, following a chair at Glasgow, and Alan Norrie, professor and head of department at Warwick University, following chairs at Queen Mary College, and King’s College, London.

Ian himself was never closely tied to any school of jurisprudence, but sought to find innovative and critical ways of thinking about law, within the general approach of law as a means of achieving important purposes. To put it simply, for him, law was not just a means whereby the powerful preserve their power, but also a means whereby the weak can overcome their weakness. With this in mind, he encouraged the development of a range of honours courses, all under the banner of jurisprudence, but dealing with areas of topical interest and concern, though rarely studied in law schools at the time, such as industrial and race relations.

He found much satisfaction in encouraging students, and was very popular with those who found his broad view of jurisprudence stimulating. For some generations of students, even after demitting that office, he was known simply as “the dean”, and his popularity was enhanced by his youthful appearance and relatively flamboyant style of dress, and his propensity to own slightly exotic cars. A number of these students have gone on to achieve considerable success; he was equally proud of all of them. Among those holding chairs, or high office, are both Zenon Bankowski, emeritus professor of legal theory at Edinburgh University, and Lynda Clark – Lady Clark of Calton – chair of the Scottish Law Commission and recently elevated to the Inner House of the Court of Session.

Ian was part of a revolution in the teaching of law in the 1960s and 70s. Until the 1960s, law degrees had been taken as part-time courses, usually after an arts degree, and largely with a view to simply preparing for professional practice. Ian insisted on seeing law as an academic discipline in its own right. Students have to learn the law, but they must also think about what it is, how it works in practice, and what it should be – “law in action”, to use a phrase common at the time to describe ideas now so commonplace as to conceal their radical nature then.

Besides teaching, Ian’s academic interests found expression in some significant episodes of a more public nature. Most obviously, he was a member of the Stewart Committee, whose reports The Motorist and Fixed Penalties (1980) (from which he partly dissented), and Keeping Offenders Out of Court: further alternatives to prosecution (1983), introduced both the current system of road traffic “fixed penalties”, and “fiscal fines”. These initiatives have effloresced into the variety of alternatives to prosecution which are so much a feature of current criminal justice as to outnumber actual prosecutions nowadays.

Less obviously, he was intimately concerned in the production of Lord McCluskey’s 1986 Reith lectures, entitled Law, Justice and Democracy. These dealt with still topical questions of the constitutional position of judges and their relationship with elected politicians, and for the purposes of the necessary research, Ian accompanied Lord McCluskey to the United States.

But Ian’s interest in law as a means of achieving justice was also manifest in two other, linked, extra-curricular developments that he either initiated or encouraged. One was the original Dundee Legal Advice Centre. It was among the first to dispense free legal advice, delivered by students working under supervision. Though this centre ultimately fell foul of a number of difficulties, including diminished funding, Ian drew much satisfaction from its recent revival in the form of the Dundee Student Law Clinic, a student-led initiative within the Law School. The other, which has survived without interruption, is the Scottish Legal Action Group. Its journal Scolag – again more than a little revolutionary for the time, but now declaring itself “supported by the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland”, and approaching its 40th year of publication – was edited, and contributed to, by Ian for many years.

Ian’s desire to use his talents to teach students, and to make law accessible to ordinary people, put him at odds with the growing pressure in universities towards funded research. Despite the high regard in which his book on the jury is still held, and his commitment to the cause of Scottish legal history, including service as literary director of the Stair Society, and on its council, for many years, his best-known publication is Scottish Legal System, a student text written with a colleague, which celebrates its fifth edition this year.

After retiring, Ian was appointed professor emeritus, and devoted much of his retirement to editing, and writing for Open House, an ecumenical journal promoting Second Vatican Council Catholicism.

Ian was a shy, modest, very private, sometimes awkward (and occasionally infuriating) man, but he inspired great loyalty among those he helped along the way. His life had its challenges. His brother George, for whom he had chief responsibility for many years, was severely disabled, and his wife Elizabeth, who shared that responsibility, both predeceased him, but he was sustained by his Christian faith.