Please write a bit about your background.
I currently live near Thame with my partner, Sarah. We are mainly here for the transport links: Sarah is a member of the public law team at the Law Commission and, in normal times, she commutes to London. And Oxford is only a short drive or train journey away.
I grew up in Swindon. I left my secondary school, a comprehensive, at 16, and studied Drama, English, History, Philosophy, and Psychology at a further education college (my school, like most schools in Swindon, did not (and does not) have a Sixth Form). I did not do brilliantly in my GCSEs—well by the standards of my school, but nowhere near as good as an average Oxford applicant (I do not know why I got in; I do know that I was extraordinarily lucky). I did much better at A-level. Those two years were very significant for me. The Philosophy course was particularly important. My teacher advised me to go beyond the textbooks and to pick something from the list of further reading. I ended up ordering Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I realise, looking back, that I hardly understood any of it, certainly not the details of Hume’s arguments. But the book had a lasting impact on me—not in terms of the positions that Hume argued for, but in that it opened my eyes to the life-changing and life-affirming wonder and power of intellectual enquiry.
My A-level teachers encouraged me to apply to Oxford. I was not sure I wanted to; to my teenage eyes, the bright lights of London were compelling. But, in the end, I did, thanks in no small part to my mum’s former boss, who was the only person we knew, apart from my teachers, who had been to university. I owe my mum’s old boss a great deal—I arrived in Oxford in 2007 and have not left! For a number of years, I was a law student at Wadham, and I was fortunate to be taught by many brilliant law tutors, including Jeffrey Hackney and Laura Hoyano. This experience, you will not be surprised to hear, was utterly transformative.
What led you to a career in academia?
My parents recall that, when I was 10, I told them I wanted to be a lawyer or an actor. My acting ambitions disappeared when I was a teenager. For a while, I wished to be a barrister. But that started to change when I was a BCL student. During that wonderful year, I gained a deeper appreciation of the nature and value of law as an academic discipline, and of legal theory, particularly the philosophy of law (John Gardner and Les Green’s seminars on the rule of law were a real highlight). I hoped to take the Advanced Property and Trusts option, but it was not running. So, instead, I opted to write a BCL dissertation on property rights in human tissue, supervised by Bill Swadling. This was my first research project at Oxford. I enjoyed every aspect of it, and it seemed to go pretty well, so I decided to apply for the MPhil and, later, the DPhil. My MPhil thesis, which examined the nature of so-called ‘possessory titles’ to chattels, was supervised by Ben McFarlane. Luckily for me, Ben agreed to supervise my DPhil too, even though he had left Oxford and taken up a Chair at UCL. In my first year as a research student, I was able to take on some teaching responsibilities. I discovered that teaching at Oxford was challenging, enriching, rewarding, and, often, very fun. From that time, my mind was made up: I did not wish to be a full-time practitioner; I wished to stay in higher education and teach, research, and write. I am conscious of my good fortune in being able to do just that.
What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?
My primary research interest is private law, particularly the law of property. Much of my recent work, building on my DPhil, has focused on relativity of title in the common law. I believe that one cannot properly understand the place, role, or importance of possession and ownership in the common law in the absence of a sound account of the nature and limits of relativity of title. I discovered during my dissertation studies, with Bill Swadling, that personal property law in particular has a lot of untapped potential—it is understudied and under-conceptualised (as Peter Birks pointed out many years ago). This is one reason why I have focused on it.
Some of my work crosses traditional taxonomical divisions. I believe that to understand property as a legal institution, one must (among other things) understand how it is protected and, consequently, one must consider the connections between property and the law of torts, criminal law, and human rights law. I am also interested in a range of theoretical and normative questions relating to property law—such as, what is property? What is private property? What are the grounds of property rights?
I find these topics and questions fascinating, and I like to think that they are not totally unimportant. But I am interested in areas of law that are less connected to property too. I was an unusual (weird?) undergraduate law student in that I did not have a favourite subject: I really liked private law, public law, and jurisprudence! This made it hard to decide what to focus on. As a BCL student, as well as writing about personal property, I studied Constitutional Theory, Jurisprudence and Political Philosophy, and Unjust Enrichment. I am still interested in a broad range of legal subjects and try to draw connections in my research. In a world of ever-increasing specialisation, this can be dangerous, but I do think it is healthy to avoid academic silos.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on three main projects. The first concerns the scope and justifiability of strict liability in respect of interferences with land and chattels. The second concerns conflicts between property rights and the serious needs of others. It focuses on the circumstances in which it is legally justifiable to use another’s land or chattels without their consent, and examines whether the law is satisfactory.
The third, which I am working on with Charles Mitchell (UCL), seeks to make sense of ‘mesne profits’. Charles and I recently completed one paper on this topic—it analyses the causes of action upon which a claim for ‘mesne profits’ may be founded. We are now working on a second paper, which will seek to identify the principles that govern the quantification of awards of ‘mesne profits’.
Who inspires you or has inspired you in the past?
One of the privileges of working in Oxford is that I work alongside many of the legal thinkers who have inspired me. I will not mention them all by name, partly because it would be a very long list! I would like to mention Lord Bingham. I was taught by Lord Bingham in my final year as an undergraduate (he delivered a series of seminars to students on the FHS Human Rights course). I was struck, not only by his dazzling intelligence and his warmth, but also by his modesty. Whenever we discussed one of his (typically spellbindingly brilliant) speeches, he would ask for a show of hands on whether he had got it right. When the class voted against him, he replied, without a hint of irony: ‘you know, I think you’re probably right.’