Ben McFarlane

Ben McFarlaneI am from Bedford, a historic and ethnically diverse town with a bus station which is a highpoint of the X5’s Oxford-Cambridge progress. I was the first person in my family to go to University and the first to take an interest in the law. I had a great time studying the subject on the BA and BCL courses at Univ and know from personal experience the massive impact that excellent teaching can have. I was keen to stick around after the BCL, to do some research, to see how teaching worked from the other side - and to win a few more years to reach 100 goals in college football. I therefore penned a five year deal with Christ Church, as the Penningtons Student in Law - and centre forward - benefitting from their excellent law library and beautifully-tended pitches. In the former, I prepared my very first land law tutorials under the aquiline gaze of a bust of Teddy Burn. One of the students I was due to teach asked me if I was a ‘hard core’ tutor or not: after nearly 25 years of teaching, I am still unsure as to either the true or the right answer. 

After some years also turning out for the Trinity College 1st XI, I reached the century milestone and so was able to move to a chair at University College London. I set up a Faculty team there (Bentham Academicals) and spent my footballing dotage tearing hamstrings, chiefly my own, and watching younger people run into the distance. Fortunately I had my research interests to fall back on: as throughout my career, they are in the law of property and of obligations and, in particular, the intersection of the two. Two current projects involve the formal structure of equitable doctrines, and the use that judges make of the concept of ‘property’ in deciding private law disputes.

I clearly remember sitting in the Bodleian Law Library as an undergraduate and reading the diagram on p 42 of Peter Birks’s Introduction to the Law of Restitution, which neatly divided different parts of the law into a table. I am still intrigued by the question of whether the great mass of case-law in England and allied jurisdictions can be adequately captured and classified. I think that the common law is one of this country’s most enduring intellectual and practical achievements and regard it with the same awe as in my first week as an undergraduate. Trying to uncover its underlying principles, and provide some structure for understanding it, is important but, more importantly, fun. With its stellar line-up of academic talent, and excellent behind the scenes administrative teams, Oxford is the ideal place for such a task, and I was very lucky to have the chance to return as Professor of English Law and to add St John’s to my list of colleges.

We also all made the move up from Wimbledon to Oxford and, along with our two young daughters, and notwithstanding some remaining unpacking, my wife (who is at the Chancery Bar in London) and I are now pretty much settled in. One downside of the move is that our older daughter and I are no longer a 15-minute tube ride from our seats at Chelsea’s home ground, but that has been purely an academic issue of late. One of my most inspiring moments was seeing her as a 5 year old slot home a penalty at Stamford Bridge during an FA Cup tie, although it is true that the mascot could have made more of an effort to save it.