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Professor Alastair Bissett-Johnson 1941-2008 - An Appreciation

Date:25 JUL 2008

By Professor Chris Barton
Alastair, who died of a pulmonary embolism on 9 July this year, wore his intensely successful international life in family law as lightly as his less well-known musical talent (his asthma alone preventing him from making a career from the latter). He was also a water colourist and a senior member of the Scottish Episcopal Church - to which, typically, he lent his professional skills. His gentleness and good nature will be missed: many who thought they knew him well will only have learnt of many of his achievements on reading The Times obituary of 23 July.

Having obtained his LLB from Nottingham University in 1962, and an LLM from Michigan shortly afterwards, he taught at Sheffield, Bristol (where he met his first wife, Dr Winnie Macpherson, who died in 1992), Melbourne (Monash), Leicester, Montreal (McGill), Nova Scotia (Dalhousie: his first Chair, and that university's youngest professorial appointment) and, in 1991 Dundee, retiring from the last in 2006. The Dean of Dundee Law School, Professor Alan Page, said, 'Alastair Bissett-Johnson was a "gap scholar" before the gap generation, one of several who made their careers in the commonwealth before returning to this country', an experience which was to give him, a founder member of the International Society of Family Law, an unrivalled comparative expertise of the child and family law jurisdictions of England and Wales, Australia, Canada and Scotland. During his career he co-authored some four books (not least, with Peter Seago, Cases and Materials on Family Law, 1976, (Sweet & Maxwell), the first of the many modern works on these matters) and published numerous learned articles: he also served as provincial editor of the Canadian Bar Review and as assistant editor of the Dalhousie Law Journal. But he was far more than a 'mere' academic. Quite apart from his habit of being called to the Bar (Inner Temple) and/or qualifying as a solicitor in various jurisdictions - Victoria, Nova Scotia, Yukon - he was (to take just a few examples) a member of the Nova Scotia child abuse team, a co-drafter of the Yukon Children's Act 1984, an adviser on the Canadian Government's reform of the Divorce Act 1985, and a Consultant to the Scottish Office Central Research Unit on the division of pensions after divorce. He was, of course, a key link between the English and Scottish approaches to family law. The common thread amongst these various activities was his concern for the weaker members of the family unit, a commitment which started at a time when such interest was not, perhaps, always as fashionable as it may seem to be today.

I would like to mention four personal memories of Alastair: his gently self-deprecatory response to my careless mis-spellings(s) of his name; his magnificent account of a colleague's attempt to mark exam papers whilst sailing a small boat on a large, windy lake; his high-level skills as co-author and external examiner; and the kind, practical, help he once gave to my wife and myself. It was good to read Professor Page's remark that, 'Wherever he taught he made his mark. He was a much loved colleague who will be fondly remembered as well as sadly missed'. Not everyone as outwardly successful as Alastair merits such valedictions. After his near-half century career, one would have wished him a longer retirement and condolences are due to his widow, Ann, whom he married in 1996.

Professor Bissett-Johnson was an International Correspondent for Jordan Publishing's International Family Law journal.