Barry Nicholas

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The Independent Online

John Keiran Barry Moyland Nicholas, law scholar: born 6 July 1919; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1950; Tutor, Brasenose College, Oxford 1947-71, Fellow 1947-78, Vice- Principal 1960-63, Principal 1978-89 (Honorary Fellow 1989-2002); All Souls Reader in Roman Law, Oxford University 1949-71, Professor of Comparative Law 1971-78; FBA 1990; married 1948 Hildegart Cloos (died 1995; one son, one daughter), 1998 Rosalind Williams; died Oxford 3 March 2002.

Barry Nicholas's membership of Brasenose College, Oxford as undergraduate, Fellow, Vice-Principal, Professor, Principal and Honorary Fellow is a record of 65 years of devoted service which would be hard to match and impossible to surpass.

He was born in 1919, educated at Downside School and went up to Brasenose in 1937 to read Classics, getting a First in Honour Moderations in 1939. Then the Second World War intervened. Having served in the Royal Signals, principally in the Middle East, he returned to read Jurisprudence, in which he obtained a First in 1946. He had planned to enter the Civil Service, but was persuaded by the Principal, W.T.S. Stallybrass, to stay in academic life. He was elected to a Fellowship in 1947, then to the All Souls Readership in Roman Law in 1949, and was called to the Bar in 1950.

After more than 20 years as a College Tutor, he became Professor of Comparative Law in 1971 (fortunately for Brasenose, the Chair is attached to that college) and then Principal of Brasenose in 1978, the first Roman Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation. He held over the years a number of visiting professorships, was an Honorary Bencher of the Inner Temple and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was given an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Paris V in 1987.

First and foremost Nicholas was a tutor. He and R.H. Maudsley were a formidable teaching team, whose former pupils include an imposing list of distinguished judges, barristers and solicitors. Nicholas believed in teaching the person, not the subject. He would pass on the advice given him by Stallybrass that the task of a tutor is to put his pupils on to their right lines, not his. His pupils' essays were always taken seriously, careful notes being taken while they were read out as the basis of the ensuing discussion. His loyalty to his pupils was unconditional. But he was also a realist. Asked by a pupil whether he should give up his attempt to get a rugger Blue in order to improve his chances of getting a respectable Second in his degree, Nicholas advised him to concentrate on the Blue.

His classical training led naturally to his interest in Roman Law. His Introduction to Roman Law (1962) and his edition (the third) of Jolowicz's Historical Introduction to Roman Law (1972) testify to his deep learning in Roman Law, as his French Law of Contract (1982, second edition 1992) demonstrates his sophistication as a comparative lawyer. The Introduction to Roman Law became and has remained the standard work in English on its subject. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this work to the survival of the study of Roman Law in Britain. Nor is its influence confined to the English-speaking world. A Spanish translation was published in 1987 and a Chinese version in 2000.

A feature of his books and articles is the clear, precise, direct style in which they are written. The elegance and economy of Nicholas's English made him an outstanding draftsman, invaluable in such tasks as the revision of college statutes and the delicate re-negotiation of the terms of trusts in which the college had an interest. When the college took counsel's opinion, it was Nicholas who drafted the question to be put, in such a way as to indicate clearly the answer which it was hoped counsel might feel able to give. His drafting and diplomatic skills were also put to international use when he was United Kingdom delegate to the UN Conference on International Sales Law in 1980.

His clarity of thought and his calm, efficient reasonableness were the basis of his reputation as an administrator. In the faculty he was greatly admired as an examiner and as a Chairman of the Law Board. For the university he served on Hebdomadal Council and the General Board for a number of years, as well as ad hoc committees such as one on the Use of Libraries.

His predecessor as Principal, Herbert Hart, said that Barry Nicholas had a kind of genius for co-operative work. This was a talent constantly demonstrated when as Principal he had to chair meetings of the governing body of the college. Meetings were run calmly and courteously, with only the occasional hint of a rebuke. A colleague of that time recalls an occasion when Nicholas, having deplored the failure of the Fellows to complete and return a quite simple form, urged them to search their consciences and their rooms.

Retirement seemed to produce no great change in his life. He continued to come into college regularly, to teach Roman Law to first-year undergraduates and to give a course of lectures introducing foreign students to the basic concepts of English law. In his youthful appearance, too, and in his unfailing, unassuming kindness, he remained the Barry Nicholas we had always known.

John Davies