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Professor James Harris: in memoriam

The faculty is very sad to announce the death, on 22 March, of Professor James Harris, Fellow and Tutor in Law at Keble College 1973-2004, after a brave struggle against cancer. He will be much missed by his students and colleagues. Details of a Memorial Service to be held at Keble College will follow in due course.

The following obituary appeared in The Times ( on 5 April 2004

JIM HARRIS`S writings covered the broadest range of legal and jurisprudential interests. Blind from the age of four, he nonetheless rode and rowed at Oxford and taught at the London School of Economics before returning to Oxford to take up a fellowship at Keble College. He then won international fame as a scholar with a series of works on jurisprudence, precedent and property law which, plumbing his vast and rigorous knowledge of legal theory, became leading works in their fields.

The eldest of three children, James William Harris was born in Southwark in 1940. He was educated at two specialist schools for the blind, Linton Lodge and the Royal Worcester College. In 1959 he went up to Oxford to study at Wadham College, where he rowed in a Gentleman`s VIII and rode in a riding club based on Port Meadow. He took a first, but did not head straight into academia, instead qualifying as a solicitor before returning to Oxford to read for the bachelor of civil law degree.

His first academic position was at the London School of Economics, where he wrote the doctoral thesis that would later become the monograph Law and Legal Science. For a short time, he found himself in the unique position of acting as his own supervisor when a colleague left, transferring all his graduate students to Harris, including Harris himself.

In 1973 he was appointed to a fellowship at Keble College, Oxford, where he would remain for the rest of his career. As a young fellow in the mid-1970s he caused consternation in the senior common room by proposing that women be allowed to dine in college without restriction, a proposal carried by the casting vote of the Warden, Dennis Nineham. He was a strong supporter of the decision to admit women students in 1979.

Law and Legal Science, published in the same year, offered a fresh and lucid version of positivism, the jurisprudential approach founded by Bentham, Kelsen and Hart that distinguished legal rules and systems from moral claims and discourse. Harris's work, with its Kelsenian leanings, added to the imposing body of theoretical inquiry animating the Oxford law faculty at that time.

It was, however, his next three books that best captured his unique style of reasoning and exposition. Legal Philosophies (1980) was a textbook in legal theory comprising short polished essays on leading figures and schools of thought. The style was a delight; Harris made the austere thoughts of his subjects, from Aquinas to Weber, live as if the ideas themselves were actors on a stage, vociferously arguing and gesturing.

In 1991 he took on the fourth edition of Sir Rupert Cross's classic text on precedent, and made it even better. Cross and Harris On Precedent in Law is regularly cited by the courts, perhaps unaware of the precipitous philosophical issues raised by seemingly simple questions of why, how and when one court ought to obey the authority of another.

But his masterpiece was Property and Justice (1996). In it he postulated two large questions: what is property, and how can it be justified? His deep knowledge of the fine details of property law allowed him confidently to transcend the technicalities so beloved of lawyers and yet harness the creativity of the common law tradition in order to drive the inquiry farther than any property theorist before him. He concluded that the ability to command property rights was an essential attribute of any decent liberal society, though he was deeply aware of the imperfections and injustices of many property-holding institutions. It is no surprise to discover that the sole copy of his book in the national library in Beijing is pored over by many Chinese scholars and philosophers.

Harris's first phase of property analysis was summed up in his British Academy Maccabean Lecture in 2001, but it transpired that he had conceived a new horizon -- to investigate how property rights and other conventional legal rights coalesced with the new discourse of human rights. A grant from the Leverhulme Trust enabled him to pursue this theme in relation to constitutions and legal processes in many parts of the world.

His disciplined curiosity remained unabated throughout his final illness. In September 2003 he rose from his hospital bed to lecture to the Society of Legal Scholars meeting in Oxford on how human rights might avoid becoming noisy `mythical beasts`, signifying nothing. The brilliance of that lecture transfixed his large audience.

His scholarly imagination and flair were critical to the intellectual flourishing of his colleagues and students in Oxford and beyond, and all who knew him prized his honesty, kindness, and intellectual finesse. A keen traveller, Harris held visiting research and teaching posts in Sydney, Hong Kong, Princeton and the Australian National University. He was a man of strong though unobtrusive Christian faith, and an active member of the Anglican church.

In 1968 he married Jose (née Chambers). She and a son survive him.

Professor Jim Harris, legal scholar, was born on March 17, 1940. He died on March 22, 2004, aged 64.

published Tuesday 23 March 2004

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