It was with a sense of sadness that I read of the death of R.W.Michael Dias, QC, a gentleman and internationally recognized legal scholar. He died in the University town of Cambridge, on November 17 last year, having spent the last 70 years of his life in the United Kingdom.
He was born in Sri Lanka to a family of legal luminaries which included Sir Harry Dias Bandaranaike, Judge of the Supreme Court and Acting Chief Justice, F.R.Dias Bandaranaike, Judge of the Supreme Court, and his father Dr R.F. Dias Bandaranaike, Senior Puisne Justice. His brother Felix Dias Bandaranaike was a respected Parliamentarian who served Sri Lanka in the capacity of both Minister of Justice and Minister of Finance..
Michael Dias referred to affectionately as “Mickey” spent most of his academic life, firstly, as a student and then as a Lecturer in law at Cambridge University. At the University of Cambridge he had a plethora of distinguished men as his former pupils including Professors Sir Derek Bowett, Sir D.J.Williams, Bob Hepple and Colin Turpin. Professor Kirk Lipstein was a colleague and fellow student and Michael Dias together with Kurt Lipstein had the distinction of being the only two students to participate in the Roman Law seminars conducted by such internationally recognized writers as Professors Sir David Daube and William Buckland. The sermon at the funeral service of Michael Dias held in Magdalene College Chapel was delivered by the Right Reverend Simon Barrington-Ward, KCMG, Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College.
Michael Dias used both his deep understanding of the theories and principles of the English common law and of the civil law to provide him with a firm foundation for his incisive excursions into classical theories of Jurisprudence. In the several editions of his book on Jurisprudence, the method of expounding the eclectic nature of the theories of Jurisprudence in a manner that provided students with a simple narration of the complex theories of Jurisprudence made “Dias on Jurisprudence” synonymous with both clarity and depth. His contributions to legal theory in the nature of analytical Jurisprudence classed him amongst such giants as von Savigny and von Ihering. When Michael Dias authored the first edition of his book on Jurisprudence in 1957 he incorporated into the book a chapter on “Possession”.
He analyzed the two then prevailing theories of “Possession” put forward by von Savigny in the 1803 edition of Das Recht des Besitzes (translated into English by Perry in 1848.) and von Ihering in the 1868 edition of “Grund des Besitzeschutezes (translated by Meulenaere in 1889).
Both von Savigny and von Ihering arrived at the concept of possession through an extensive analysis of the Roman Texts. Dias showed that the texts used by the two German scholars were in fact those edited and commented upon by the Glossators – in other words post Glossators texts.
Dias through a careful analysis of the much older and unedited classical Roman law texts of Justinian showed that the concept of possession in fact lay somewhere between the views held by the two German scholars. By resorting to decided English cases, Dias established and reinforced the strength of his own theory, mainly that neither of the two German scholars provided the correct approach to an understanding of the important concept of “Possession”. It is an accepted fact in legal theory that the concept of “Possession” provides for nine tenths of the law and that Dias’ theory has had a profound impact on its study.
As a student in the LLB final year at University College, London, I listened with a sense of pride to Prof. Lord Lloyd who told us in his lecture on Jurisprudence that “Possession” provided the basis for nine tenths of the law, and that three exponents of that concept were “Savigny, Ihering and Dias”.
He went on to say that the English Law and the classical Roman Law support Dias. In the same final year I had the opportunity to take an advance course in Roman Law. It was a special course on Justinian’s Digest 41.1 and 41.2 - on concepts of Ownership and Possession in the Roman Law. The late Professor Raphael Powel who had a class of five, having referred to both the German scholars, took up Dias whom he described as providing “The Modern Law of “Possession”. Powel also pointed out some of the uncontradicted views of the Roman scholar Giaus supported Dias’ conclusions.
It was during that course on Justinian’s Digest 41.1 and 41.2 that I realized with awe the significance of the contribution which a Ceylonese (a Sri Lankan) scholar had made to Jurisprudence (Legal Theory).
Apart from these Michael Dias in later years made valuable contributions to the law pertaining to Civil Wrongs (Torts/Delicts) . His theory of Causation spun out of the Privy Council’s decision of the “Wagon Mound” dealt with both the philosophical and textual strands of the concept of Causation. Utilizing his expansive knowledge of Legal Theory as his foundation, Dias built around it his excursions into other areas of law, namely Civil Wrongs (Torts) and Comparative Law. He continued for many years as Editor of Clerk & Lindsell, the leading academic and practioner’s work on the law of Torts.
At an Essay prize - giving in 1985, Magdalene College Cambridge referred to Dias as “a fine teacher, clear, perceptive, inspiring confidence, getting the best out of every undergraduate, and obtaining a ‘harvest of firsts’.”
As a person, Michael Dias never did flaunt his standing in academic circles. He was never given to self adulation and never spoke of himself or his work at public lectures, as it is often done by persons of lesser ranking. He was a man-of- ideas and his public persona was maintained through his published works and never through his own word of mouth. The word “I” never found a comfortable place in his vocabulary. These attributes I find are the hallmarks of a refined scholar.
On one occasion at a meeting of the Society of Public Teachers of Law (SPTL) held in Edinburgh, I had the occasion to introduce Michael Dias to a meeting of Teachers of Law from the United Kingdom and from other parts of the Common Law world. I had come adequately prepared to introduce the speaker. He sought me out to tell me that “Michael Dias would do”.
He then added with a smile “I mean it.” I was somewhat apprehensive of making such a brief introduction from the chair. However, I then remembered the special formula which the President of the Oxford Union once used when introducing Sir Winston Churchill. He said, “some Chairmen are regularly accused of bad chairmanship if they do not take time to introduce a speaker adequately. But today it is different. I have the privilege of presenting to you Winston Churchill of Magdalene”. I decided to rely on that statement by merely replacing “Sir Winston Churchill” with “Michael Dias”. There was resounding applause.
I had several opportunities of meeting Michael Dias in Cambridge, often having the pleasure of lunching with him. I met him soon after that awful tragedy in his life when his beloved wife Norah who accompanied him on his visit to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was killed in an airplane accident, together with the wife of his fellow External Examiner, the pilot and the pilot’s wife.
Michael had gone to Southern Rhodesia to be one of the External Examiners at the Faculty of Law and the University had arranged a visit to a wild life sanctuary for their wives when the twin engined airplane crashed, killing all on board. Outwardly Michael maintained a sense of stoicism and would continue to look to the future rather than regret the past.
My personal regret, however, extended to another sphere, mainly that after having enrolled for my Doctorate with Michael as my Supervisor, the University of Cambridge Senate brought forth a requirement that a candidate must reside within, I believe it is five miles from the University Tower. Being at University College London I was clearly unable to keep to that requirement. Regretfully I lost an opportunity to do my work under his supervision. I consequently enrolled in London and completed my work selecting a very different topic.
Michael Dias and I both had our early education at Royal Preparatory School and later at Royal College. Of course our spells at Royal embraced different time spans. We both studied Latin at Royal. Dias excelled in mastering that language and I was depressingly bad in it. However, in later years I was to develop a love for Roman Law. I did three years of Roman Law at University College which included the LL.M in which I did Roman Law of Sales. During that period my visits to Cambridge to meet Michael Dias provided me with a learning experience. It was during that period that he suggested the topic for me for a doctoral thesis to be supervised by him.
And it was in Roman Law. The title of the proposed research was “A Comparative Study of Transfer of Rights in the Roman and the English Laws”. What a splendid opportunity that I was compelled to forgo due to my economic compulsion to reside and work out of London.
I am greatly thankful to Michael Dias for his help in guiding me through example, to understand what knowledge is all about and that knowledge is never an end in itself and that a mixture of knowledge with humility makes a near perfect human being, notwithstanding that some academics may consider they are perfect and that they are God’s gift to mankind. Michael always believed that knowledge was the best gift one could leave behind for mankind, and that never has there been a human being who was perfect. He did leave behind an enormous intellectual legacy for mankind.
In the circles in which Michael Dias was known, he shall always be remembered as a Gentleman and Scholar.