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Obituary: Sebastian Poulter

SEBASTIAN POULTER was the leading British academic in the field of the law relating to ethnic minority customs. This followed naturally from his early work on the legal system of Lesotho.

Appointed to a lectureship in law at Southampton in 1972, he rose steadily up the academic ladder to a senior lectureship in 1981 and a readership in 1989. At the time of his death, he was on the verge of being awarded a personal chair. His substantial list of publications during this period included Family Law and Litigation in Basotho Society (1976), English Law and Ethnic Minority Customs (1986), Asian Traditions and English Law (1990) and, shortly before his death, Ethnicity, Law, and Human Rights: the English experience (1998).

This last book demonstrated his perceptive ability to analyse particular social problems in their legal context, to bring to them a creative and critical insight and to give legal theory a practical application. The book, a testament to his life's work, explores the policies and principles which should govern legal responses to ethnic diversity in contemporary Britain.

Poulter's recognised pre-eminence in the field led to his co-authorship of the Report of the Runnymede Commission on Islamophobia (1997) and to work advising the Commission for Racial Equality on the legal aspects of religious discrimination.

He had a conventional middle-class upbringing in post-war Britain, being educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, Repton and Trinity College, Oxford. The seeds for his future career were sown in his "year out" as a VSO secondary school teacher in Swaziland in 1960. The southern African connection was renewed with his appointment in 1967 as lecturer (later senior lecturer) in law at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. His early publications on Lesotho's legal structure were recognised as pathbreaking work.

He returned to Lesotho in 1977 for a two-year secondment as Professor and Head of Department. His reputation for fairness and impartiality led to the onerous and in his words "fearful" task of chairing the Government Pardons Committee advising on the exercise of the prerogative of mercy.

Sebastian Poulter was the embodiment of the essential link between teaching and research in a top-class university. As well as his specialist course in the law relating to ethnic minority customs, he fashioned a distinctive family law course at Southampton. His 1979 article in the Modern Law Review on the definition of marriage in English law remains a seminal piece. He was an extraordinarily dedicated teacher who invariably scored very highly on course evaluation questionnaires.

At Southampton he served for eight years as Undergraduate Admissions Tutor and co- authored the department's two internal reviews. Most significantly, he was one of the architects of the Law Faculty's success in the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise when it achieved the recognition of a Grade 5 ranking for research excellence.

Sebastian Murray Poulter, legal scholar: born Abingdon, Berkshire 12 August 1942; Lecturer in Law, Southampton University 1972-81, Senior Lecturer 1981-89, Reader 1989-98; married 1972 Jane Bonvin; died 3 April 1998.