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Dr Stephen Michael Cretney, 1936-2019

Press release issued: 1 October 2019

Stephen Cretney, former Dean of the Faculty of Law, passed away on 30 August at the age of 83. Professor Malcolm Evans offers a remembrance.

Stephen joined the Law School (then the Law Faculty) in 1984, leaving in 1993 to take up a Senior Research Fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, from which he retired in 2001. On arrival at Bristol he was immediately appointed Dean, a position he held until 1988. One of the ‘great triumvirate’ (literally) of Professors at that time (the numbers of Professors at that time was strictly limited to a maximum of three, the others being Professors Michael Furmston and Martin Partington), such an appointment merely reflected the stature of the appointee. Stephen had already served as a Law Commissioner from 1978 to 1983 overseeing the work which subsequently become the seminal 1984 Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act, 1984 – a landmark Act of Parliament if ever there was one. (It is also worth noting that Stephen was succeeded at the Law Commission by Brenda Hale – Lady Hale – later Chancellor of this University and now President of the Supreme Court).

Stephen was initially a student of history. He turned to law whilst at University, qualified as a Solicitor, worked in the City and rapidly rose within Macfarlanes to the point of being offered an equity partnership. This, it turned out, was an offer he could refuse – and he decided instead to go to Kenya and lecture at the School of Law in Nairobi. Two years later he returning to the UK and in 1968 become a fellow at Exeter College Oxford, a position he held until he came to Bristol. In addition to these roles, he also served as a general commissioner of income tax (1970-78), served as part time chair of a Social Services Appeals Tribunal, was a Fellow of the British Academy and was appointed an honorary QC in 1992.

His academic output was prodigious and its influence enormous. It is fair to say his work transformed family law – and with it, family life. Indeed, he has been described as ‘the “father” of modern English family law’. The first edition of his Principles of Family Law appeared in 1974, with some of the later editions being produced in collaboration with other great Bristol Law Professors, Emeritus Professor Bailey-Harris and Professor Judith Masson. Principles also had a sibling, Elements of Family Law which, as Cretney and Probert’s Family Law saw its 10th edition in 2018. His publications are too many to list, but mention must be made of his magisterial work Family Law in the Twentieth Century: A History (2003).

Those who remember Stephen at Bristol will remember a man who at times could seem rather shy and retiring, but who also spoke with a piercing precision on issues which fell for discussion. His words were carefully weighed and carried their weight with them. As a colleague he was generous and hospitable: he wore his formidable intellect lightly and enjoyed good conversation and diversion from the cares of the day. He was devoted to family not only in law but in life – and his wife, Antonia, was also very much a part of the vibrant staff social scene that characterised life in the Faculty at that time. Stephen leaves a legal legacy that stands comparison with the greatest of legal scholars. He also leaves of legacy of respect and affection with all those privileged to have worked with him and to have known him.

Further information

Read Malcolm Evans' oration of Stephen Cretney at the 2007 law graduation ceremony.

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