Professor Paul O'Higgins: Innovative scholar at the forefront of studies in British labour law

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Paul O'Higgins was an innovative teacher and scholar who helped to nurture several legal disciplines, becoming an authority in labour law, civil liberties, and social security law.

His greatest contribution was in the field of labour law, which he taught at Cambridge University from the early 1960s, until he left to become Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College, Dublin in 1984. At Cambridge, O'Higgins forged what was at the time one of the most productive partnerships in British legal academic life. With Bob Hepple, he created the Encyclopaedia of Labour Relations Law (1972), and in a notably fertile year – 1971 – he and Hepple wrote two important books: Public Employee Trade Unionism in the United Kingdom and Individual Employment Law. A few years later, Hepple and O'Higgins combined with Judith Neeson to produce the much-needed Bibliography of the Literature on British and Irish Labour Law (1975).

O'Higgins played a leading role in expanding the horizons of fresh generations of labour lawyers, drawing attention to the significance of international labour standards and the work of the International Labour Organisation. The most recent of his several seminal papers on the subject (published in The Future of Labour Law, 2004) provides a hard-hitting yet realistic assessment of the future prospects for such standards in the current global economic and political climate.

Otherwise, O'Higgins was at the forefront of an innovation in legal teaching and scholarship, which encouraged lawyers to appreciate how law worked in practice, and to reflect on the social context of the legal rules they examined. And without flag-waving, he was in the vanguard of another innovation, highlighting the responsibility of academics to the wider community.

O'Higgins thus played a crucial part in working with bodies such as the Workers' Educational Association, and with trade unions (notably the National Graphical Association, as it then was) to develop shop-steward and chapel-officer training courses, which he also presented. An individual with a vivid recollection of this training remembers O'Higgins as being one of only a small band of eminent lawyers "capable of communicating effectively with trade-union officials at all levels".

The value of such work was impressed on the countless number of PhD students attracted to Cambridge in what was truly a golden age for the study of labour law. Much of the output of that postgraduate research found expression in the Studies in Labour and Social Law series, which O'Higgins edited jointly with Hepple between 1978 and 1985. This was especially impressive given that it was a time when it was very difficult to persuade publishers to take on legal monographs.

Many of these students in that vibrant research community were to become distinguished scholars, legal practitioners and judges in their own right, but few forgot the friendship, support and kindness supplied by O'Higgins. It was a mark of the very warm affection in which he was held that so many were keen to contribute to a book of essays presented to him by his former students in 1994 (Human Rights and Labour Law: essays for Paul O'Higgins).

O'Higgins was born in 1927, and was educated at St Columba's College, in Dublin and at Trinity College, Dublin. He was one of three children, his father a veterinary surgeon who was decorated twice for outstanding bravery during the First World War; his mother an exceptionally gifted linguist who spent a year at the Sorbonne, and lectured in French at Liverpool University and in Italian at Trinity College, Dublin.

After studying medicine, O'Higgins changed to law at a late stage, graduating in 1957. Although called to the both the Irish (1957) and English (1959) bars, he devoted his working life to teaching and research, completing at Cambridge in the early 1960s what has been described as a "brilliant" PhD on political asylum. In addition to Bill Wedderburn (now Lord Wedderburn, who pioneered the teaching of labour law at Cambridge), influential figures in his early career included Frank Dowrick, Otto Kahn Freund, Glanville Williams and Robert Jennings.

O'Higgins became a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge in 1959, and was a member of the Faculty of Law at Cambridge University from the early 1960s until 1984, when he responded to the call of his spiritual home. For personal reasons, however, he returned from Ireland in 1987, when he was appointed to a chair at King's College London, a position he held until his retirement in 1992. He served as Vice-Master of Christ's from 1992 to 1995.

Quite apart from his immense contribution to British labour law, O'Higgins produced important work on civil liberties (including Censorship in Britain, in 1972), and significantly advanced Irish legal scholarship, compiling several bibliographies of Irish law, and editing with John McEldowney books on Irish legal history in 1989 and 1990. He was elected to the Royal Irish Academy, and his achievements were acknowledged also by doctorates awarded by Trinity College, Dublin, and Cambridge University.

In retirement, O'Higgins was treasurer of the Alan Bush Trust, which promotes and celebrates the work of the composer, and remained committed to a number of causes with which he had been associated during his working life, including the Institute of Employment Rights, Liberty, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the British Institute of Human Rights and the Irish Society for Labour Law.

Keith Ewing

Paul O'Higgins, legal scholar and lawyer: born 5 October 1927; called to the Bar, King's Inns 1957, Lincoln's Inn 1959; Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1959-2008, Steward 1964-68, Tutor for Advanced Students 1970-79, Vice-Master 1992-95; Director of Studies in Law, Peterhouse, Cambridge 1960-74; University Lecturer in Law, Cambridge University 1965-79, Reader in Labour Law 1979-84; Regius Professor of Laws, Trinity College Dublin 1984-87; Professor of Law, King's College London 1987-92 (Emeritus); married 1952 Rachel Bush (one son, three daughters); died Cambridge 13 March 2008.