Professor David Clarke, MA, LL.B, Solicitor

Doctor of Laws

Wednesday 11 February at 2.30 pm - Orator: The Right Honourable the Baroness Hales of Richmond

Mr Vice-Chancellor

In Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘You are old, father William’, the young man wonders why his father can still eat so well:

‘In my youth, said his father, I took to the law

And argued each case with my wife

And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw

Has lasted the rest of my life.’

In his youth, I am told, young David Clarke used to argue each case with his mother, and because he almost always won, she told him that he ought to be a lawyer. And a very good thing too, for it has led to a distinguished career, most of it in the service of this University, of which he and his family  can be very proud and for which the University can be extremely grateful.

His family’s roots were in Lincoln. He attended Bracebridge primary school where his maternal grandfather had been headmaster and both his parents had been pupils. He went on to Lincoln School, then a direct grant boys’ grammar school. While there he took the important step of committing himself to the Christian faith. This remains a mainstay of his life. It also had the incidental and rather surprising effect of putting a brake on the bullying which was then so endemic in boys’ public schools, often targeted at academically able boys like David, and totally ignored by the staff. But he overcame it, went on to be School Captain, and to gain a place at Queen’s College, Cambridge. One of the tasks set for the entrance examination was to write an extempore three hour essay on ‘Cultivation’. I wonder whether he or I or anyone else here could do that now.

Academic success continued at Cambridge, where he obtained a First Class degree in law and stayed on to do the post graduate degree now called the LL.M (where he also got a first). Then, like most of us who come from the rural counties, it seemed obvious to become a local solicitor. A quiet dinner with the senior partner of the largest firm of solicitors in Lincoln, who was also Chair of the School Governors, sealed his fate. That was how things were done in those days. But their confidence in him was entirely justified. He passed the Law Society’s Final Examination with honours (a most unusual feat) and gained a distinction in the dreaded solicitors’ accounts examination.

A little known fact, indeed unknown to David at the time, is that the great Lord Denning, who as Master of the Rolls admitted him as a solicitor in 1975, was his third cousin. No wonder he has turned into such a great lawyer himself! It was also during his time as a solicitor’s articled clerk that he met Judith, his wife of nearly 40 years, and together they have three daughters and two grandchildren: another benefit of his religious commitment, as they met through their work with local church groups in Lincoln.      

David proved an effective and versatile practitioner, becoming, for example, the firm’s expert on trademarks and the first solicitor to do undefended divorces in the local county court. But partnership was a long way off and so, encouraged by his Cambridge mentor, Professor John Tiley, he decided to embark upon an academic career. Bristol offered him a job immediately after his interview in this very building – something unheard of these days but common practice then. He accepted on the spot and stayed with the University for the next 37 years.

These were busy and fruitful years. Most unusually, he carried on a solicitor’s practice from his home in Bristol for most of the 1980s, giving, as he puts it, a Rolls Royce service for Mini prices, but also keeping in touch with how law works on the ground, something which very few legal academics are able to do these days.

At the same time, he developed his academic career. He found his niche in property law, a vital part of the legal curriculum but not the sexiest of subjects either for the students or their teachers. The key to getting your academic show on the road is to find a topic which no-one has written about and write a good book about it. David did just that with his first work, on Rent Reviews and Variable Rents - a seemingly dry and technical subject but one which matters a great deal in the world of commercial leases. It ran into several editions and became the chartered surveyors’ bible. Later work moved into residential leases, with a book on leasehold enfranchisement and two books on the newly invented institution of Commonhold, a way in which people can own both their own separate flats and a share in the whole building. David became the greatest living expert on the subject. 

As academics we learn from those around us as well as from our books. We learn from our students: their enthusiasm, optimism and freshness of view is what keeps many of us coming back year after year. David has always been one of those academics who is thoroughly committed to his students and to enabling them to make the best of their time here. We also learn from our academic colleagues. The Bristol Law Faculty has long been a vibrant place, but never more so than during the 1970s and 1980s, when many who became household names in academic law were here, but some had to move on, as opportunities for promotion here were so scarce. Things are better these days, as Universities have learned that they must reward their star performers properly if they are to keep them.

Indeed, we nearly lost David in the 1980s. The Law Faculty had to reduce its staff and so David was one of those who volunteered to take a year away from Bristol without pay and took a temporary teaching post in the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He enjoyed this so much that he tempted to take a permanent post when it was offered. Fortunately for us – and I believe also for him – he turned it down and remained with Bristol. But the broadening of horizons was a vital part of his academic development, which went from strength to strength on his return and successive promotions followed.

He was also appointed to a different sort of chair, presiding over the tribunals which deal with residential property issues – rent assessment, leasehold enfranchisement and the like – and he will continue to sit as a tribunal judge in his retirement – we judges, Mr Vice-Chancellor, are a long-working lot.

Inevitably, he was also identified as an academic leader. He became Head of the Department of Law in 1997, Dean of the Faculty of Law in 2001, and in 2005 he moved into the University’s senior management team as a Pro Vice-Chancellor, becoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 2008.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, you will know much better than anyone else what an invaluable member of your senior team Professor Clarke has been. He has brought to it his analytical skills as a lawyer, his inter-personal and leadership skills gained over his many years as an academic and practitioner, his loyalty and commitment to this University, and his humane consideration for the staff and students in his care. I know, as Chancellor, what a great support he has been to me in enabling me to understand what is really going on here. 

He has many achievements in this role to be proud of, but perhaps I can single out a few of the less well-known: it was he who solved the problem of finding a suitable prayer room for the Muslim community in the University; he who persuaded the Centenary Celebrations committee that the space next door to this building should be turned into a centenary garden; and best of all, he who persuaded the University to buy a gorilla, with Gromit to follow!

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I am delighted that today we can both mark the University’s gratitude for the exceptional service which Professor Clarke has given it over those 37 years and at long last award him the doctorate which he should have obtained for his work on rent reviews all those years ago.

I present to you Professor David Neville Clarke as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.     

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