Professor Emeritus Harold Ford AM: Innovation in Legal Education

By Silvia Dropulich

The Hon Justice Julie Dodds-Streeton (LLB (Hons) 1980) has said that if you had to nominate Australia's most important and influential writer and teacher in commercial law, the answer would undoubtedly be Professor Emeritus Harold Ford AM (LLD 1948, LLM 1949, LLD 1987).

Armed with questions about the Melbourne JD Harold Ford Scholarships, this writer left an interview with Professor Ford with notes on interesting books to follow up, a sense of his wisdom, and a brief history of legal education in Australia.

Professor Emeritus Harold Ford AM is a renowned legal educator and author, as well as a law reformer who, in 1967, succeeded then-Professor The Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC (LLB 1940, LLM

1941, LLD 1973) as Dean of the Melbourne Law School and occupied that office until the end of 1973. In 1994 he was made a member of the Order of Australia for his services to law.

As a student in the 1960s, The Hon Justice Kenneth Hayne AC (LLB (Hons) 1968) recalls a teacher who "understood and loved his subject to such an extent that it was self- evident to even the most indolent and hedonistic member of his class".

It was Professor Ford who introduced open-book law exams in Melbourne.

"The open-book exam enabled the setting of better problems which called for the application of the law to a set of facts," Professor Ford told MLS News.

"The earlier exams had problem questions but in the open-book exam the questions could be made more searching," he said.

"If you were a student looking for the easy way out, you could be misled."

Professor Ford was inspired by what he had seen at Harvard Law School.

In the late 1960s, Professor Ford wanted to establish a graduate law school. Again, he was inspired by what he had seen at Harvard and also the University of Michigan, where he had spent a semester teaching.

"In a way, it is a reversion to the law course of the 1920s because in the 1920s the LLB course for the first two years had a large number of Arts subjects," Professor Ford said.

"The idea of having earlier non-law study before the study of law is not new in the University of Melbourne.

"The Arts subjects had been gradually crowded out from sometime in the 1930s through to the 1950s."

Professor Ford's own legal studies were interrupted in 1939. He began his studies in 1937 and in 1939 was called up in the Navy because he had joined the Reserves.

"I was in the Navy for six years and when I came out I was much more mature than when I was a student earlier," Professor Ford said.

"I was really a mature-age student by this time.

"I could appreciate legal reasoning and my course much better than I did prewar."

Harold Ford was Professor of Commercial Law at the University of Melbourne from 1962 until he retired in 1984. At various times he lectured or tutored in Equity, Legal History, Private International Law, Constitutional Law, Industrial Law, and Company Law.

"There's always the constant battle of making something complex accessible", he said when asked to comment on the challenges of teaching.

"But a good lecture can be very satisfying."

In 1974 to 1975, Professor Ford was one of a small team that prepared the National Companies Bill for the Commonwealth Government, a  Bill that was to be introduced on 11 November 1975.

"It never became law," Professor Ford explained.

"But various innovative provisions in it were adopted in later legislation."

Between 1994 and 1990, Professor Ford was appointed Chairman of the Companies and Securities Law Review Committee responsible to the Federal and State Attorneys-General for the review of company law.

"Notable changes in law resulted from the Committee's work," Professor Ford said.

In 2006, Her Honour Judge Irene Lawson (LLB 1979) raised the idea of initiating a scholarship program to support academically outstanding students whose financial situation may discourage them from applying to study law at Melbourne Law School.

The Melbourne JD Harold Ford Scholarships Committee was established as a steering group to guide and shape the initiative and raise funds for the scholarships.

When it came to the naming of the scholarships initiative no one could think of a person more deserving and appropriate than Professor Emeritus Harold Ford.

The Melbourne JD Harold Ford Scholarships have been created to support students whose financial situation may constrain them from studying law.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 2, September 2009.