In memory of Professor Roger J Smith

Professor Roger J Smith

Professor Roger J Smith, who died earlier this month, was elected as a Tutor and Fellow in Law at Magdalen College in 1974, and served the College and the Oxford Law Faculty in an exemplary manner for more than forty years. Within the Faculty he became famous for his authoritative lectures on the land registration system, his engaging tutorials, particularly on Land Law, Trusts, Tort and the FHS Company Law option, his BCL teaching on the Personal Taxation course, and his outstanding (for some: “degree-saving”) student books: Property Law (ten editions), and Property Law: Case and Materials (six editions). Behind the scenes he was a peerlessly supportive and reliable colleague, regularly taking on – without fuss or fanfare – substantial administrative roles, and on hand whenever informal advice was sought. Since his death - and that of his wife Maralynn - were announced, the College has been inundated with messages attesting to Roger’s crucial roles in teaching and encouraging generations of students - he set a benchmark for other law tutors to aspire to – and warmly reminiscing about the role that Roger and Maralynn together played in befriending and assisting so many of their former students.

Below, is the text of a speech that was given at a dinner – attended by former students from across five decades - to mark Roger’s retirement from full-time teaching at Magdalen in 2018. But the intensity of the audience’s applause for Roger and Maralynn that evening is a far better indicator of the esteem in which they were held than anything that can be summarized in words.

Roderick Bagshaw


Speech delivered by R M Bagshaw at the London Dinner to mark the retirement of Professor Roger J Smith (2018):

My role in tonight’s proceeding is to speak about Roger Smith – who – as you all know – is retiring after forty-four years as a Law Fellow at Magdalen College. That’s tricky – to summarize the career of one of Oxford’s greatest law tutors, Magdalen’s longest-serving law fellow – ever - and to do it in front of so many people who know him first hand ...

So tricky – but what I’ve decided to do is to take advantage of the coincidence that the first letters of Roger’s surname – S M I T and H – happen to also be the first letters of his most notable five characteristics, if you like - the real properties - of Roger Smith.

S. For Substance. I hope we can all agree that Roger is the very opposite of superficial or lightweight. What he has delivered through forty-four years of lectures, classes and tutorials, and nine editions – so far – of his authoritative textbook, Smith on Property Law, is a guide to the substance of the law, the underlying principles, the fundamentals.

In his 2004 monograph, Plural Ownership, Roger explained that in the area he had chosen to write about: “there is a veritable mountain of authority, with many technical rules and distinctions. The challenge for the modern lawyer is to consider whether this complexity can be reduced or eliminated.” And in that book – indeed, throughout his career – Roger has met that challenge of reducing the unnecessary complexity, and making what’s left comprehensible.

M. For Meticulous. Roger likes to be precise about the details. In preparing these words I tried very hard to unearth salacious gossip about Roger. One of Roger’s predecessors as Law Fellow at Magdalen allegedly hid in a cupboard to avoid teaching undergraduates – but I couldn’t find skeletons in Roger’s closet. Last week though, I thought I’d struck gold: - no lesser dignitary than the Vinerian Professor, told me that he knew something scandalous about Roger. So, I invited him to lunch … indulged in small talk for a while - so as not to appear too eager: but eventually couldn’t hold back and demanded, go on then – what’s the scandalous thing you know about Roger? And he said: Roger likes to go to College Meetings to make sure that the Fellows act in accordance with the College Statutes and By-laws.

Not quite what I’d hoped for – but certainly true. Roger has been Magdalen’s Guardian of the Rule of Law. And every contribution that he has made to the governance of the College – as Clerk, Senior Tutor, Vice President, has been equally meticulous.

I is for integrity. Roger manifests the highest standards, and has inspired the trust of all who have worked with him, all who have studied under him.

I know of only one person who has ever doubted Roger’s integrity. On Amazon, a disgruntled reviewer of Roger’s Property Law Casebook awarded it only one star – his complaint? - the book contains so many passages cut-and-pasted from the Law Reports.

Substance, meticulousness, integrity

I take the T to stand for both tolerance and tact.

New undergraduates frequently ask me – “Is it true that Roger taught you in tutorials?” – and I always reply: “Yes. He taught me, but he is always much too polite to mention it.” Looking back, my undergraduate years were not the phase in my life when I exhibited my best characteristics – but, looking round this room … - I’m pretty confident that I am not the only one grateful for Roger’s tolerance and tact. And, given that I understand that when clearing his office he found his original hand-written notes on every student’s performance in tutorials – there are many of us hoping that Roger’s tolerance and tact continues long into the future.

H is for hospitality. We’ve enjoyed an excellent meal tonight. But I mean no slight, in pointing out that many of us here tonight have enjoyed even finer meals as guests at Roger’s and Maralynn’s home, with its beautiful garden. Others here will have experienced Roger’s hospitality as a host at High Table in Magdalen – or will have enjoyed chatting to Maralynn and him at the Atkin Society’s Annual Garden Parties. And of course, the hospitality is only a single facet of the kind-heartedness and deep commitment that both Roger – and Maralynn have shown - to the flourishing of the students, Fellows, staff and alumni of Magdalen College.

It’s usually claimed that the measure of a tutor’s success is how far you their values are reflected in their former pupils. Looking round this room, I see plenty of substance and integrity, meticulousness, tolerance, kind-heartedness. Magdalen can be properly proud of its law alumni, even if it deserves only an ounce of the credit. But, hospitality … well, I can only hope that has improved since some of you present this evening were responsible for an Atkin Christmas Dinner at which the gravy was served in a recycling bucket – and the state of the room in the aftermath was such that the College authorities are still trying to ban the event fifteen years later!

Substance, Meticulousness, Integrity, Tact, Hospitality. But, I want to end with the first initial. R. Now obviously that R could be for Registration – the land law topic that Roger has illuminated through his lectures for so many students. In fact, I thought this might be the perfect moment to call on one of you in person, to check how well you’ve remembered how the land registration regime deals with equitable easements. No? Well, if not for registration then

… the most suitable answer is that the R stands simply for Roger. Magdalen College has every reason to be grateful for the outstanding contribution that Roger Smith has made to Magdalen College over the past 44 years, through being Roger.

So, two things. First, I am going to hand over this small package, that contains a retirement gift – funded by gifts from colleagues, former colleagues and students from every decade when you’ve been a Fellow of Magdalen. And lastly, I would like to invite you all to stand and drink a toast to Roger Smith – in the style of Magdalen Latin: Floreat Ruggero.