Professor Michael Furmston (1933-2020)

Professor of English Contract Law, Academic, Author and Commentator

Professor Michael Furmston was one of the common law world’s most eminent scholars of English contract law since the 1970s. His list of publications, articles, textbooks and editorials proved that he was a pre-eminent academic lawyer from another time. He enjoyed such a long career in the United Kingdom and abroad, that it should be noted his publication list is relatively short; but his writing endured, and was highly sought after for his analyses. Superior courts all over the common law world for some 50 years echoed his sentiments, and to this day continue to do so.

He was the eponymous author of Cheshire, Fifoot and Furmston Law of Contract, which went into ten editions. The magisterial work is a mainstay in the Common Law world for students and practitioners alike. He handled six editions of Butterworth’s Law of Contract, and in collaboration with others, he edited at least five editions of contract law casebooks. Professor Furmston commenced a peripatetic career in the 1970s teaching the law of contracts and other university law subjects, at Birmingham University and The Queen’s University Belfast, before taking a fellowship and appointment at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1964, where he became a university lecturer the following year. In 1978, he took a Chair at the University of Bristol, and became Dean of the Faculty twice, and at that university, in his last three years, he held the position of Pro-Vice Chancellor.

By 1998, after a distinguished academic career, he took a number of visiting posts in the UK. The odyssey continued. Retirement seemed like a phase to him – to be taken in several stages. He was invited by the newly established Singapore Management University to set up their law school. He was Dean from 2007 to 2012. He had a great attachment to Singapore. By that time, the Professor had a reputation which preceded him, and accordingly, SMU benefited from that.

In 2015, he was required to retire for a second time, but he did not retreat into obscurity. He was retained by the Centre for Commercial Law and Justice at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he continued to teach and write until recently. The Professor loved travelling and teaching and had a particular predilection for the hot, balmy countries – such a contrast to where he lived in England, the picturesque south-west county of Somerset (in fact near Cheddar Gorge). It happened to be his fellow colleagues at Sunway who rushed him to hospital on 28 June, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, where he died of heart failure.

Michael Furmston always presented as a robust, jolly, open-faced professor of English contract law. Unmistakably, he was a bon vivant academic and practitioner from another time. He had the unusual habit of tripping over items of furniture on or near podiums, and it was last occasion, that tendency manifested. His hale and hearty visage did not reveal his underlying condition.

On several occasions Michael Furmston travelled to Australia and taught contract law at various universities, including the University of Sydney. Notably, he co-authored with Professor Greg Tolhurst, who held the Chair in Commercial Law at the University of Sydney Contract Formation: Law and Practice (2010) (2016) and Privity of Contract (2015) through Oxford University Press. In fact, he was a much-loved travelling academic, who could often be seen hailing cabs with great gusto or sitting in restaurants in company, throughout the world.

The Professor was an enthusiast of construction law and, naturally, was fascinated by the factual detail of these cases, such that he co-edited five editions of the Building and Construction Casebook with Vincent Powell-Smith, and for at least two decades, edited some 154 volumes of the Construction Law Reports. His encyclopaedic knowledge of contract law cases was aided by a fine memory.

Incidentally, in his latter years at Bristol, the Professor practised briefly at the Bar, and appeared in the most celebrated case, Ruxley v Forsyth, which was the swimming pool case, and the very subject on which he gave many, many lectures to staff and students around the world. The case is often still referred to and lives on in the memory of most construction lawyers. He was an associate member of Keating Chambers until his death, and he was an elected Bencher at Gray’s Inn in 1998.

The Professor’s scholarly predilections were manifest and from another time. He was a traditional, black-letter lawyer and wherever he went, impressed that upon his colleagues and students. He loved the company of students and encouraged them to go forth into the world to practise. More often than not, his analysis of contract law cases and lawyerly procedures was sharp and perceptive as ever.

The Professor had wide-ranging interests and in many ways was a consummate academic. For instance, his contract with SMU contained special clauses that allowed him to return to England whenever a Test cricket match was being played. He was an enthusiast of cricket and held that most civilised of club memberships at Lord’s where he loved the Long room at the Pavillion. Most did not know, but he was a champion chess player. It will come as no surprise that the Professor loved to combine travel, culture and excellent gastronomy. For instance, his many trips to Rome to take part in UNIDROIT Working Groups on the International Principles of Commercial Contracts, and the like, and also his interest in EU institutions, were all attended by a full appreciation of the gastronomic delights of the country he happened to be in – Italy, France, Germany or Sweden. He was a raconteur and had a brilliant sense of timing in story telling. He was a delightful friend and advisor to many lawyers and he often met his former students in England. Ever the bon viveur, he was constantly planning his next lecture abroad and his next publication. He was really the perfect eminent academic visitor to a Law Faculty anywhere in the world.

While living out his academic career, his family was always his most important life interest. His wife Ashley, whom he married in 1964, and their 10 children, latterly lived in picturesque Somerset UK. Their loss is felt by all and shared by many colleagues around the world.

Kevin Tang
8 Wentworth Chambers