Obituary: Professor Glanville Williams

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The Independent Online
Glanville Williams was a legal scholar in a class on his own. His writings were prodigious in their quantity, quality and range. He was a dedicated and inspiring teacher. And he was also a hugely effective law reformer - a kind of legal Asterix, whose boundless energy and unquenchable optimism led him into endless battles against unjust laws, many of which he won despite the overwhelming odds against him.

Nowadays Williams is best known as a writer on criminal law, where his fame rests on four books, the influence of which has been enormous. First among these stands his Criminal Law: the General Part (1953), a 900-page text concerned, as he explained in the preface, "to search out the general rules of the criminal law, i.e. those applying to more than one crime". The Proof of Guilt (1955) is a comparative account of the rules by which criminal cases are tried in England and Wales, penetrating in its analysis of the merits of our system as well as its defects.

The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law (1958) examines the philosophical basis for laws against contraception, sterilisation, artificial insemination, abortion, suicide and euthanasia; when it appeared it was very controversial. The fourth book is his 1,000-page Textbook of Criminal Law (1978). This was a successful student textbook, and would be one still if he had ever managed to finish the third edition, on which he had been labouring for 14 years at the time of his death.

In fact, his range as a writer went far beyond the criminal law. Before turning to the criminal law, Williams had already written what are still the definitive books on a range of other important legal subjects: Liability for Animals (1939), The Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Acts (1943) (1945), Crown Proceedings (1948), Joint Obligations (1949), and Joint Torts and Contributory Negligence (1950). In 1947 he had edited Salmond's Jurisprudence.

He covered an even wider range of topics in the huge number of articles which, astonishingly, he also found the time to write. It is difficult, indeed, to think of any important legal subject on which at some time he did not have something original and interesting to say. Nor is this all. For taking notes, he invented and patented a new form of shorthand (Speedhand Shorthand, 1952). And with Learning the Law (1945), now in its 11th edition, he wrote a little introductory book about law studies which was, and still remains, indispensable reading for any would-be law student.

Williams's voluminous and sometimes complicated writings are inspired by two big and simple notions. The first is that the law should be clear, consistent and accessible. The second is that law should be humane. He was a convinced utilitarian, who held that punishment was an evil to be avoided unless there was a good reason for imposing it, and for whom "good reasons" meant the well-being of society, not the tenets of religious belief. Hence Leon Radzinowicz's celebrated bon mot about him: "Glanville Williams is the illegitimate child of Jeremy Bentham".

These utilitarian beliefs also underlay Williams's efforts as a law reformer, an activity in which he managed to play two roles at once. The first was the "establishment man". He devoted many hours over several decades to serving on a range of official committees, in particular the Criminal Law Revision Committee, of which he was a member from 1959 to 1980. In this capacity he shares the credit for a number of reports which led, among other things, to the decriminalisation of suicide in 1961 and the radical reform and codification of the law of theft in 1968.

His second role was that of "radical outsider". Working sometimes with others, sometimes on his own, he was adept at stirring up public opinion over matters where official interest in reform was lacking. He took a major part in the campaign to liberalise the law on abortion, which largely succeeded with the Abortion Act of 1967. He was also very active in the campaign to legalise voluntary euthanasia, which has so far largely failed. He was both president of the Abortion Law Reform Association, and a vice- president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

In the 1950s he was among the first to draw public attention to the problems children face when giving evidence in sex cases - and was still campaigning on the subject in the 1980s. In 1960 he was the first person publicly to advocate the tape-recording of interviews with suspects in police stations; initially condemned as a silly and impractical idea, 25 years later this became almost universal practice. Perhaps his greatest triumph was in 1986, when a well-timed article persuaded the House of Lords to rule that a person can be guilty of attempt even where the crime in question was impossible of completion: so overruling their decision the other way the year before, and expressly overruling, for the first time ever, their previous decision in a criminal case.

Glanville Williams was a respected and innovative teacher. He was also very supportive throughout their careers to a number of his junior colleagues. Although a kind man, however, he was rather shy, and not a great socialiser outside the circle of his family. He was brought up in a pious Congregationalist family in South Wales, and much of his background stayed with him. Notwithstanding his great eminence, he remained to the end of his days a quiet-spoken, modest, gentle, serious-minded Welshman. Although an agnostic for most of his life he knew his Bible, and the use of biblical phrases was instinctive to him. "He smote him hip and thigh", he once said, describing an article an American had written criticising Sigmund Freud.

Academic honours were heaped upon him, culminating in 1995 in a Doctorate of Letters honoris causa from his own university, Cambridge. During his lifetime it was widely rumoured that he had never been offered a knighthood because he had been staunchly pacifist before the Second World War, and during it a conscientious objector. The truth, however, is that he was offered one and declined it; partly from modesty, and partly because he thought it incongruous that a man who had refused to wield a bayonet should theoretically bear a sword.

Glanville Llewelyn Williams, lawyer: born Bridgend, Glamorgan 15 February 1911; Called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1935; Research Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge 1936-42; Reader in English Law, then Professor of Public Law and Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, London University 1945-55; Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge 1955-97; Reader in Law, Cambridge University 1957-65, Professor of English Law 1966-68, Rouse Ball Professor of English Law 1968-78; QC 1968; married 1939 Lorna Lawfield (one son); died 10 April 1997.