Dr Stephen Cretney

Doctor of Laws

19 July 2007 - Orator: Professor Malcolm Evans

Madam Chancellor: Stephen Cretney

It is with more than the usual quotient of trepidation that I begin this oration. For you, Madam Chancellor, are far more able than I to speak of the contribution which Stephen Cretney has made to the appreciation and development of family law in this country and have yourself commented upon the masterly nature of Dr Cretney’s book, Family Law in the Twentieth Century in your judicial capacity. In doing so you have added your voice to a veritable paean of praise for a work which, though only accorded the status of runner-up for the British Academy Book Prize in 2004 (a decision on which I pass no comment), has been described in the Times Literary Supplement under the heading of ‘the book of the century’.

As a man of considerable modesty Stephen Cretney would, I suspect, be quick to disown the implication that this is the finest written work that this century has produced  (although, once again, this would be a decision on which I would pass no comment). What this work does is chart and probe the various influences which have shaped the legal regulation of families and family life across the twentieth century and the manner in which the law has been shaped by them. Writing in the journal Family Law, the Hon. Mr Justice Munby observed that this was ‘a truly remarkable book ... of consuming interest ... to everyone who seeks novel and illuminating insights into the social and political history of the last 150 years. It is a staggering and triumphant achievement’.

The journey to this achievement began in 1936 and continued through Stephen Cretney’s education at Cheadle Hulme School, originally founded in 1855 as the Manchester Warehousemen and Clerks’ Orphans School. The School’s motto was In Loco Parentis,  foreshadowing perhaps an interest in family law matters.  Following a period of National Service with the Cheshire Regiment and the Intelligence Corps, he proceeded to Magdalen College, Oxford and thence into the practice of Law as a solicitor, rising to become a Partner in Macfarlanes, the prestigious City law firm, at a young age in the early 1960s. It was at this point that Stephen’s career took a dramatic turn, moving away from the professional and re-focussing upon the academic practice of law. Indeed, his first appointment saw him move far afield in a very literal sense, taking up an appointment as Lecturer at the Kenya School of Law in Nairobi. After two years he returned, briefly holding a lectureship at Southampton before returning to Oxford as Fellow and Tutor at Exeter College where he remained until 1978.

During this period Stephen’s reputation as an authority on matters of personal law continued to grow. His Principles of Family Law, the first edition of which appeared in 1974, established him as one of the leading Family Lawyers of his generation and so it came as little surprise when he was invited to take up the role of Law Commissioner in 1978, with responsibility for its programme regarding the reform of Family Law, a position he held with distinction until his departure from the Law Commission in 1983.

Madam Chancellor, it was at this point that the University of Bristol was fortunate enough to be able to secure for itself the benefits of Stephen’s presence through his acceptance of an offer of a Chair in the then Faculty of Law. Indeed, upon his arrival in 1984 he was asked to serve as Dean of the Faculty (a peculiar form of welcome, if ever there was one). He stepped down from that role in 1988 and remained a pillar of the Faculty and University until his departure in 1993 when he returned to Oxford once again, this time upon his election to a Senior Research Fellowship at All Souls College, a position he retained until his retirement in 2001, and which he continues to hold as an Emeritus.

Whilst fulfilling his University responsibilities here at Bristol with his customary aplomb, Professor Cretney continued to contribute to the work of many bodies and processes, touching upon legal education, judicial training, prison reform and, of course, the further development of family law. Examples include his time as Chair of the Committee of Heads of University Law Schools and his membership both of the Lord Chancellor’s Working Group on the future of Legal Education and the Judicial Studies Board. As if there were not already sufficient calls upon his time, this was combined with the part time chairing of a Social Security Appeals Tribunal and this pattern of extended commitment to public and legal service has continued unabated from then till now.

Throughout all this time, the flow of scholarly writing continued unabated, with numerous editions not only of his Principles of Family Law, (latterly in collaboration with Emeritus Professor Bailey-Harris and Professor Judith Masson, both of this Faculty) but also its sibling Elements of Family Law, and also Enduring Powers of Attorney.  In addition to many journal articles and consultation papers of note, he also contributed to the writing or editing of numerous other works, including the deliciously entitled Simple Quarrels (1994), Divorce - the New Law (1996), Law, Law Reform and the Family (1998) and, of course, the book of the century, Family Law in the Twentieth Century (2003). Lest it be thought that he has since chosen to rest on his laurels, he has most recently published his Clarendon Lectures, delivered in 2005, under the title Same Sex Relationships: from ‘Odious Crime’ to ‘Gay Marriage’.

As should by now be apparent, Stephen Cretney’s work focuses on issues that impact upon us all: familial relationships, marriage, divorce, rights and relationships of partners and parents. We have all been affected by the manner in which his insights and understandings have helped guide and shape the development of the law on these questions and his eminence in these fields has long been recognised, not least through his being made a Fellow of the British Academy and, in 1992 his being accorded the title of Honorary Queens Counsel. No stranger to controversy, his views concerning the legal propriety of the marriage arrangements for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall attracted prolonged nationwide attention, whilst also bringing to the fore his expertise in constitutional matters.

There is a danger that these extracts from his list of achievements might make Stephen Cretney appear to be a fairly forbidding figure. This would be a mistake. He is a committed family man himself, married since 1973 to Antonia, and father of two sons, and many will recall with pleasure his accounts of motor cycling escapes, family holidays at Butlins and visits to the Superbowl. The readers of his textbooks will find not only deep learning but wry humour in the footnotes and his longstanding and passionate love of art has been reflected in his choice of cover designs for books, choices which have prompted exchanges and debate in themselves. All of this testifies to the manner in which he combined his love of life with his love of scholarship.

Madam Chancellor, at the outset I expressed trepidation at delivering this oration. There is another reason for this: Not only has Stephen Cretney, when Dean of his Faculty, stood many times where I am standing now, and has done many times what I have tried to do today in a far finer fashion than that to which I could ever hope to aspire, but it was also during his leadership as Dean that I was appointed to a lectureship here.  It is, then, with a particular personal pleasure that, Madam Chancellor, I present to you Stephen Michael Cretney as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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