Helen Scott with her children
I was born and brought up in Cape Town, where much of my family still lives. Perhaps because my father was an advocate (South African for barrister) and (from the early 90s) a judge, I was initially resistant to studying law – I chose classics instead. But having picked up a few law courses in the second year of my BA I realised that I wanted to be a lawyer after all. It was 1994, and the sense of optimism and possibility was extraordinary: I was taught by several of the drafters of the South African Constitution, and the idea that law could not only serve as a bulwark against an unjust state (as in the 1980s) but could also play a role in the transformation of South African society for the better was intoxicating. More fundamentally, what I loved about law was the sense of purpose that it brought; the idea that in solving difficult legal problems you were somehow contributing to the functioning of the state and the welfare of society. Much as I enjoyed classics, the study of the ancient world couldn’t compete.
What led you to a career in academia?
The story of how I came to Oxford is a rather haphazard one. I hadn’t given much thought to what I would do after graduating – this was the late 90s, when competition for jobs in law was much less fierce than it is now – and when one of my lecturers suggested that I apply for the BCL I was hugely flattered. Then as now, the highest barrier to entry for international students wasn’t the selection process itself (however rigorous) but the need to obtain serious funding – I was very lucky to be awarded a scholarship set up to cater to women in the days when the Rhodes Scholarship was confined to men (I had to promise to use my education ‘to support my husband’) and so I fetched up at Balliol in late September 1999. Nothing in my education until that point had prepared me for the BCL: I had never worked so hard, or felt so out of my depth, but the intellectual stimulation of seminars with Joseph Raz, John Finnis, Peter Birks and many others was mind-blowing. Because my scholarship covered both tuition and the bulk of my living expenses for two years I was able to progress to the MPhil. After a year of research, I knew I wanted to be an academic.
What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?
As for my research interests, I had fallen in love with Roman law as an undergraduate at UCT, and studied it further in the context of the Roman Law Delict course on the BCL. I also hugely enjoyed the study of private law and the law of obligations in particular during the postgraduate years of my LLB degree, although I am proud to say that I managed to win the class medals for administrative law and constitution law too. But probably most significant in shaping my research career was the fact that my first job (as junior colleague to Nick Barber at Trinity in 2002) required me to teach Roman law and Tort: I remain fascinated by the history of the modern law of tort (or delict), and in particular by the Roman roots of contemporary tort doctrines such as the foreseeability of harm in the context of the tort of negligence. On the other hand, I wrote my DPhil thesis on the South African law of unjustified enrichment, having studied enrichment in my final year at UCT and on the BCL, and comparative unjust/unjustified enrichment remains one of my core interests: I find the interaction between the ancient civilian substrate and modern judge-made law endlessly fascinating. If my research has a single overarching theme, it is the relationship between the past and present, and the drivers of legal change: what survives of ancient legal systems like the Roman one, and why?
Why did you want to take on the role of Vice Dean and what do you hope to achieve? What do you see as the challenges the Faculty faces over the next 2 – 3 years?
My first Oxford life ended in stages: I took a year’s leave from my fellowship at Catz in 2007 and resigned in late 2008 to take up a position in the Department of Private Law at UCT, returning to Oxford (specifically LMH) only in late 2017. At UCT I assumed a series of increasingly demanding administrative roles, culminating in three years as Head of Department between 2014 and 2017. Like all academics I love to read, think and write, and I find teaching hugely rewarding; I resented the inevitable incursion on my research and teaching that the job represented. But at the same time, I realised that universities depend entirely on the willingness of academics to assume such roles: we cannot hope to sustain and transmit our idea of what a university is and what it is for if we don’t.
On my return to Oxford I had a lot to learn - the combination of the familiar and the novel has been surprisingly tricky to negotiate, and I had become used to a more traditional university structure – but three years in I hope that I have acclimatised sufficiently to be trusted with the Vice Deanship. Oxford Law does many things brilliantly: the decentralisation inherent in the college system generates a huge dividend in autonomy and intellectual independence. But as I remember, it can be hard on early career academics – even on the high achievers we appoint. One of the strengths of the traditional departmental model is that relatively junior academics have informal access to more senior ones: it is of course much easier to knock on an open door that you pass countless times each day for help with a problem or advice about where to send an article than it is to approach someone via email or through a formal appointment. More simply, I hugely enjoyed interacting daily with my colleagues over coffee or in the corridors: one of the well-known ironies of Oxford life is that we have terrific colleagues whom we never see! As co-Vice Dean I hope to work with other office holders in the Faculty to build a stronger Faculty culture with more opportunities for personal interaction, whether research-based or social. More specifically, I hope to build on our existing system of mentoring to provide more concrete support for those in their initial period of office, the IPO being one of my core areas of responsibility.
What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time and what is the best thing about living and working in Oxford?
The recent lockdown has been hard on all of us: as the mother of small-ish children (5 and 8), both of whom required home-schooling over the course of a four-month period, I have come face-to-face with my limits as a teacher and a parent. But there have also been amazing upsides. The three of us have explored huge tracts of rural Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, places I had never visited despite living in Oxford for a combined total of twelve years, and I feel I know every inch of Wytham and Bagley Woods, as well as the upper reaches of the Thames. So the enduring legacy of the (first) lockdown for me will be a much greater familiarity with and love of the English countryside. I might even keep up the wild swimming (although I’ll need to invest in a wetsuit for the winter months!)
What charity do you support and why?
About ten years ago a friend whom I greatly admire started a project to promote charitable giving at 5%+ of gross income. I haven’t managed to continue giving at that level, but I continue to support three charities that I believe are key to improving life for vulnerable Capetonians: Red Cross Children’s Hospital (through the Children’s Hospital Trust), which performs life-changing operations on children from across sub-Saharan Africa for free; the Peninsula School Feeding Association, which was set up in the 1950s to provide free meals in schools after the existing feeding scheme was abolished by the National Party; and the Haven Night Shelter, which not only feeds and shelters Cape Town’s street people but also seeks to offer them a springboard out of homelessness.