Bill Swadling

Bill Swaddling with a wombatPlease tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Australia and would still be there today but for my father’s idea of coming to England to work for a couple of years and then go back.  Needless to say, we didn’t return, though I’ve still got the Aussie passport and go back when I can to see cousins, aunts, and my sister, who moved back some time ago; I also do some teaching on the intensive LLM at Melbourne University.  Unlike some colleagues, I wasn’t the first in my family to go to university (that was my dad, who did dentistry at Sydney University; his father was also a dentist, but in those days, you learnt your trade as an apprentice).  I passed the 11+ very shortly after arriving in England and went to the local grammar school, a perfectly good institution, regularly sending pupils (including the current Lord Chief Justice, a classmate - I still remember accompanying him on the piano when he sang at school assemblies) to Oxford and Cambridge.  Unfortunately, I took my eye off the ball in the 6th form, distracted by dreams of musical stardom (rock stars don’t need A levels) and screwed up my exams.  Ultimately, it was probably a good thing, as I was heading in the direction of a Maths degree and might have never discovered law.  After five years as a lowly civil servant, I did eventually go to university, doing a law degree at what is now Thames Valley University, and then an LLM at the LSE.  I then took a lectureship at Southampton University (which had (rightly) turned down my undergraduate application), then Queen Mary College, University College London, and, finally, Brasenose and the Law Faculty at Oxford in 1996.

What led you to a career in academia?

I never fancied being a solicitor.  In one long vacation while an undergraduate, I worked for a big legal aid firm in East London as an outdoor clerk.  It was great fun and I spent most of my time in court, sitting behind counsel, pretending to be the instructing solicitor which the legal aid fund didn’t pay enough to attend.  But whenever a point of law came up in my firm, the solicitors would run a mile, saying it needed to be sent out to counsel.  So that decided me on either being a barrister or academic.  I chose the latter and have never regretted it (though the pay could be a bit better).  Not only can I concentrate on the law, but I can do the law I want, not that paid for by the client.  That said, I am an academic associate at One Essex Court, and have also been an adviser on cases in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia.  It’s good to be able to combine academia and practice now and then.

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

I started off thinking I’d be a public lawyer, but when I was asked in my interview at Southampton whether I was interested in teaching Property (Real and Personal) and Trusts, I obviously had to say, Yes!  And I’ve been teaching those subjects ever since, with the addition of Restitution a few years later.  In the end, I think all subjects are as fascinating as each other once you get under their skin, so I’ve no regrets about crossing over from public to private law.  And for a private lawyer, Oxford is probably the best university in the country in which to be working.  The same, I’m sure, goes for other subjects.

What are you working on at the moment?

The big project is a textbook on Trusts.  Ask any undergraduate what subjects they struggled with most, and you’ll most likely to be told: Land Law and Trusts.   One reason is that our presentation of these subjects is generally poor, with little or no thought given to their analytical structure.  If we don’t serve the subjects up in an understandable way, it’s little wonder the understanding students receive is limited.  I tried to present a better structure for Land Law (and Personal Property) in the chapter I wrote for Peter Birks’ English Private Law, based around a series of questions: what are the various property rights; how are they created; how are they transferred; how are they lost.  This also forms the structure of a comparative casebook I later produced with a number of civilian colleagues, an enjoyable collaboration in which I (hopefully) convinced them that the common law is not as chaotic and unprincipled as it is sometimes painted.  Now it’s the turn of Trusts, equally rebarbative as currently taught.  We expect students to understand the subject by dividing according to a classificatory scheme in which the terms (express, constructive, resulting, implied) is both obscure and overlapping.  Moreover, we spend more time on outdated Victorian case-law than modern cutting-edge applications.  It’s little wonder then that most students are turned off the subject.  On the articles front, I’ve got a piece coming out soon on trusts as a response to unjust enrichment, a hobby-horse of mine, and a number of articles on the go dealing with various aspects of trusts, how they should be classified, whether talk of ‘conscience’ helps or hinders our understanding of their operation, and what it means to talk of ‘the beneficial interest’ in trusts.

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

I’ve always been interested in music and I’ve taken the opportunity presented by the pandemic and the fact that I’m now generally working from home, to put what would otherwise be time spent walking to and from college to good use: I’m slowly (very slowly) working my way through Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.  I’m presently on the third movement of his Sonata Pathétique.   I’ll never ever get to the standard of a professional, but I’m improving every day, which is immensely satisfying.  Before the lockdown, I was in a band which included some members of the law faculty, notable Josh Getzler (guitar) and Ewan Smith (vocals); before his untimely death, the great John Gardner was on bass.  We very much hope to resume playing when it’s possible to huddle in a cellar under St Hugh’s to practice without masks. 

Who inspires you or has inspired you in the past?

The person who encouraged me to apply to Oxford, and who has inspired my academic activities for virtually the whole of my career, is Peter Birks.  Even though he died in 2004, he is probably still the greatest influence on my legal life.  We first met when I was at Southampton.  We taught Property Law together and I sat in on his Restitution course.  I learnt so many things from Peter.  Most importantly, I learnt the importance of the big picture, that it was our job as academics to know more than what was decided in a particular case, to see how the otherwise wilderness of single instances might be fitted together.  Of course, the scheme one then comes up with may be flawed, and Peter was guilty of this himself in a number of respects, but we have to at least try to sort the raw material of the cases and statutes.  He also stressed the importance of teaching, of seeing academic lawyers as the equals of the profession, and as encouraging interaction between academia and the professions.  In terms of inspiration, his love of the subject and boundless energy was infectious, as was his generosity of spirit to younger colleagues, many of whom bombarded him with drafts of their work and always received (almost by return) very detailed and penetrating comments.  Although I’ve spent much of my academic career refuting some of Peter’s more extravagant claims, as a colleague, he was the best you can get.


PS: the wombat in the photo is also called William.  He is a rescue wombat, whose mother was knocked over and killed, as so many sadly are, by a car.  A friend in Australia has built a sanctuary for them and is also helping in the battle against Mange, which is having a devastating effect on the wombat population.  You can see her wonderful work on Facebook.