OBITUARIES: Ken Polack

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The Independent Online
Ken Polack was an outstanding teacher of law. He was also an unobtrusively outstanding public servant.

Born in London, he spent his early years in South Africa, where he took his BA from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. In 1954 he went on a Cohen Studentship to study Law at King's College, Cambridge, where he took a First. At the time, King's was rather dubious about whether law was really a suitable subject for university education, and about having lawyers around college; but Polack was not really a standard lawyer. King's appointed him its first Fellow in Law in 1960; and his involvement with the college lasted from then until his death.

Polack's work as a lawyer was marked by apparently limitless energy, a swift and immensely powerful intellect, and piercing lucidity of expression. He applied similarly exacting standards to his own academic writings as to other people's - a disconcerting trait when one wrote one's first undergraduate essay for him. He was a perfectionist; and that rubbed off, sooner or later, on those he taught. More importantly, he was insistent in conveying to his students in equal measure both the skills in manipulation of legal rules which are the lawyer's stock in trade, and an underlying awareness of the social and policy implications of law.

Polack gave to King's a fierce, committed loyalty. He held important posts within the college, serving successively as Tutor from 1961, as Senior Tutor from 1968 and as First Bursar from 1969; and he put his own, individual stamp on each. His openness, courtesy and enthusiasm found many outlets. At his encouragement, the son of one of the kitchen staff at King's is now a successful barrister.

My first contact with Polack was when, as the newly elected treasurer of the student union at King's, I went to see the First Bursar to negotiate the level of the per capita affiliation fee, which determined the union's budget. I had prepared a "bid" for a rise of about 6 per cent, on the basis that, if I were beaten down to 4.5 per cent, that would still be all right. Polack took me through the figures, pointed out where I had made inadequate provision for this, for that, recalled that there had been no increase for two years and said firmly that 6 per cent was too little. "You should be asking for at least 8 per cent." It was not quite the interview I had anticipated.

Polack was the antithesis of the sentimental liberal. His approach to a good cause was not banner-waving rhetoric. He filleted the issues, thought through the consequences of what he intended, tidied up the loose ends and only then swung into action. He never went off at half-cock. Then he was formidable, combining the heavy artillery of rigorous intellectual logic and meticulous attention to detail with the apparently effortless forensic skill of the good barrister.

Polack was a magistrate for 15 years from 1971, chaired a Magistrates' Court Committee, served on the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid and was a chairman of the Cambridge Social Security Appeals Tribunal. He also devoted much thought and work to organisations such as Victim Support, the family lawyers' scheme for the Citizens Advice Bureau in Cambridge and a housing association.

In 1961 he married Rosemary Sands, then a barrister, later a solicitor. It was a strong partnership of equals. They welcomed to their home with the same unfussy courtesy and warmth newly arrived undergraduates, colleagues and long-standing friends.

In mid-career, Polack was struck by Parkinson's disease, then diabetes and, finally, cancer. A lesser man would have sunk without trace. In 1993, he was obliged to resign his university lectureship, but he made no other concessions beyond the minimum. Though it was only possible for him to work intermittently at his former flat-out pace, he continued his involvement with many of his existing projects, threw himself into helping the Parkinson's Disease Society and increased the tempo of the work that he had been doing since 1981 with Ann Corsellis, the Vice-Chairman of the Council of the Institute of Linguists, in campaigning for interpreters to be made available to non-English speakers, both in court and to assist them in claiming their rights in administrative proceedings.

Ken Polack's discreet help and quiet humour greatly eased my re-entry at King's as his successor. Whenever we spoke or met, he was passionately interested in what was happening in college and in the Law Faculty. Neither the perceptiveness of his cross-examination nor the generosity of his guidance altered a whit.

Leo Sharpston

Kenneth Polack, lawyer: born London 1 December 1933; Fellow in Law, King's College, Cambridge 1960-95, Tutor 1961-68, Lecturer 1966-93, Senior Tutor 1968-69, First Bursar 1969-81; married 1961 Rosemary Sands (two daughters); died Cambridge 10 July 1995.

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