Michael Furmston 1933 - 2020

Michael Furmston
Professor Michael Furmston, who died on 28 June at the age of 87, taught at Birmingham University and Queen’s University, Belfast before taking a Fellowship at Lincoln College in 1964 and becoming a University Lecturer the following year. In 1978 he moved to a chair at the University of Bristol, where he was twice Dean of the Law Faculty and, in his last three years, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor. His age meant that he had to retire in 1998, but he remained active as a Senior Research Fellow and took a number of visiting posts before being invited by the Singapore Management University to set up a new Law School, of which he became Dean (2007-2012). It soon became a highly respected school. In 2015 Michael was required to retire for the second time, but again he did not stop, moving to the Centre for Commercial Law and Justice of Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, where he continued to teach and write. It was colleagues from Sunway who kindly took him to the Medical Centre when he fell ill; and some of them were with him on June 28 when he died of heart failure.

Michael was pre-eminently a scholar of contract law. His list of publications suggests an era of academic work that has largely passed. For a person who had such a long career, the list of full length articles is relatively short, though some have stood the test of time very well – for example, his analysis of illegal contracts in 16 University of Toronto LJ 267 was regularly cited until the old learning was swept away by the Supreme Court’s decision in Patel v Mirza. It is the amount of his scholarly editorial work that is so impressive. For example, he took over Cheshire  and Fifoot’s Law of Contract and produced 10 editions; led six editions of Butterworth’s Law of Contract; and edited, jointly with Bill Bishop and myself, five editions of casebook on contract for advanced students. After he had retired from Bristol his productivity seemed to increase, with studies of Contract Formation and of Privity (both with Greg Tolhurst) as well a student text on Commercial Law (with Joshua Chua).

Michael was fascinated by construction law. With Vincent Powell-Smith he produced a building contract casebook that also ran to five editions; and he edited no less than 154 volumes of the Construction Law Reports. In his later years at Bristol Michael practised briefly at the Bar, appearing in Ruxley v Forsyth -  the famous “swimming pool” case, on which he subsequently gave many staff seminars at universities around the world, reporting that opinion on the correctness of the decision was almost equally divided. He remained an associate Member of Keating Chambers until his death. He was elected a Bencher of Gray’s Inn in 1989.

Michael’s scholarship was of the traditional, blackletter kind, of which he was a staunch defender. (He once gave a talk to scientist colleagues at Bristol on “Do lawyers do research?” – he claimed to have convinced them that he did.)  His analysis was always very sharp and perceptive. As a colleague he was always affable, always ready to help with suggestions.

Michael had many other interests. His contract with SMU allowed him to return to England whenever Test cricket was being played, and he thoroughly enjoyed his membership of Lords. He was a very good Chess player. He loved a good meal, and his trips to Rome to take part in the UNIDROIT working group on the International Principles of Commercial Contracts, and accompanying students visiting the EU institutions, were gastronomic as well as intellectual tours de force. But most important of all to him was his family – his wife Ashley, whom he married in 1964, and their ten children. Their loss will be felt and shared by  colleagues all around the world.

Hugh Beale