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Stephen Cretney: a tribute

Date:16 SEP 2019
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Rebecca Probert pays tribute to Stephen Cretney

Stephen Cretney was an inspirational teacher and mentor, a meticulous and erudite scholar, and a true and kind friend.

Born in Oxfordshire in 1936, he grew up in Manchester and was educated at Cheadle Hulme School. From there he was elected to a Demyship – a Major Open Scholarship – in Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, but after completing his National Service elected to read law instead. His passion for history remained, as his many readers will know, but he also proved to be a brilliant lawyer.

After graduation he first contemplated a career at the Bar, and then served as an articled clerk with a City law firm – then Neish Howell and Haldane, now Macfarlanes. Yet his heart was not in practice as a City solicitor, and rather than accepting a partnership with the firm, he left to spend two years lecturing at the Kenya School of Law in Nairobi. It was there that he first taught family law. On such matters as the allocation of teaching may great careers be built!

Upon his return to England he first joined the Faculty of Law at the University of Southampton, and then accepted a fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. There, in 1973, he married Antonia, and published his first book, Principles of Family Law. It set out 'not only to explain the law as it is, but to give an account of its historical background, to analyse the factors underlying its development and to stimulate discussion of its effectiveness as an instrument of social policy…' Its success in achieving these objectives is reflected in the fact that it ran to eight editions, later ones being co-authored with Judith Masson and Rebecca Bailey-Harris. 

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1978 saw him taking up a public role as a Law Commissioner, at a time when that institution was still in its early days. His achievements there included the Commission’s substantial Report on Illegitimacy, which helped establish the consensus eventually leading to legislation in 1987.

Having completed his five-year term at the Commission, he took up a Chair at the University of Bristol, becoming Dean of the Faculty there. During his time there he took on responsibility for the monthly case notes that appear in Family Law, along with Gillian Douglas and Nigel Lowe. He also became a member of the Civil and Family Committee of the Judicial Studies Board and sat as a Chairman of the Tribunals established to deal with appeals against decisions about entitlements under the Social Security system.

In 1991 he was elected to a Senior Research Fellowship at All Souls. Here he completed his most significant work, the magisterial Family Law in the Twentieth Century: a History, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2003. In 2004 it was one of six titles shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize.

After his retirement he was sadly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and died on 30 August 2019. He is survived by his wife Antonia and their two sons.