Taking the common law to China

By Lianne Hall

Melbourne Law School is taking its legal expertise to the world with a new course on common law delivered at major universities across China.

Law students in China deepened their understanding of the common law when three global law schools came together recently to present a series of lectures. Students in Beijing and Shanghai heard from leading teachers from the UK, Asia and Australia in a forward-looking project to improve understanding of the common law in China.

"The project allows us to deepen our relationships with leading Chinese law schools and we hope that it will encourage an interest in the common law, including the possibility of further study at Melbourne, in some of China's most able students," says Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans.

"We are particularly pleased to work closely with two long-term partners of Melbourne – Oxford University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) – to bring outstanding teachers from each institution to China."

The short course on common law was partly funded by a generous gift by Mr Allan Myers AO QC (LLB(Hons) 1970, HonLLD 2012) and Mrs Maria Myers AO (LLB 1990). The funding, pledged as part of Believe – The Campaign for the University of Melbourne, supports a number of Law School initiatives in this area, including the work of the Asian Law Centre. 

The University of Melbourne has a long established relationship with China, with more than 4000 alumni living in the country and more than 4,700 students enrolled at Melbourne.

Andrew Godwin, a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School and Director of Studies in Banking and Finance Law, was surprised by the level of interest. "The law students in China have a real thirst for learning more about the common law," he said.

Melbourne Law School combined resources with Oxford and NUS to deliver lectures at four Chinese universities: Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Fudan University in Shanghai.

The collaborative team covered a broad range of topics, including contract law, remedies, equity, agency, criminal law, taxation law and property law.

"We tried to give the Chinese students a glimpse into the way in which the common law is structured, the way in which common law reasoning works and to highlight some of the interesting challenges that the common law has had to face through this broad range of areas," says Mr Godwin.

"We had some great questions from the floor, including questions on specialist topics like tax... We all found the students to be really engaging and enthusiastic, so much so that some were not prepared to let us go until we'd clarified their questions fully to their satisfaction!" Professor Jeremy Gans, who specialises in criminal law, was part of the Melbourne team.

"It was a new experience for me to teach criminal law alongside private and taxation law, and I found, as the week went on, that it was very useful to explain the common law by drawing links across those disparate subjects. That's something I'll take back to Australia to assist in teaching the common law to common law students," says Professor Gans.

Teaching students versed in another legal system meant that one of the themes presented by the lecturers was that the common law can be defined and contrasted in different ways, for example by reference to civil law jurisdictions, to equity or to statute law.

"I think a challenge for students is grasping the concept of the "common law" and determining how it operates and how the usage of the term changes depending on the areas of focus," reflects Mr Godwin.

Banner Image:The Old Gate at Tsinghua University, Beijing, once the main entrance to the original school campus 

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 11, June 2014.