Vale Peter Fitzpatrick (1 November 1941 – 20 May 2020)

by | 26 May 2020

Peter Fitzpatrick was widely revered as one of the most influential and original critical legal theorists in the English-speaking world.  His work on the colonial and postcolonial dimensions of modern law changed the field of legal theory and inspired the research of many scholars who have themselves gone on to make important contributions to legal scholarship and activism.

Since his death from cancer on Wednesday May 20 at the age of 78, there has been an outpouring on social media of sadness from students, supervisees, colleagues, collaborators and interlocutors from all over the world. Two things stand out about those messages. First, almost without exception, every message has mentioned the word ‘generous’. Second, no one has expressed regret that they had not communicated to Peter, their respect, gratitude or affection. This is unusual in a profession – and world – defined by a sense of having no time for such unproductive matters as caring for others and communicating one’s respect. But these things are linked in Peter’s way of being in the world. Spending time in his company seemed to create the possibility for slowness, and both generated and invited love.

Peter died in Kent, the garden of England, and his ashes will be returned to the beautiful garden of the Old Vicarage in the village of Sturry where he lived with his wife, Shelby Ferris-Fitzpatrick. But he was born in Australia, in rural Queensland. Peter’s path to academia was unconventional. Unlike many senior Australian academics of his generation, Peter did not come from a family that sent him to Oxbridge after an Australian undergraduate degree. Instead, Peter spent his early years in Dalby, ‘in a house with no books’, and won a scholarship to Downlands College, a Jesuit boarding school in Towoomba, a regional centre. Peter was taught there by Tim Kelly, then Headmaster of Downlands, and himself a teacher known for inspiring a love of literature and poetry in his students, first at Downlands and later at the University of Melbourne. Like Kelly, Peter joined the training for the Priesthood after finishing school. Much of his training and its close meditation on texts surely influenced his slow and hermeneutic approach to reading, evident throughout his life. Although he finished his training, Peter left the seminary in his first year as a Novice, because he was unwilling to accept the prohibition on questioning authority.

He returned to Dalby where he found a job as an articled clerk at a small law firm, studying law by correspondence at the University of Queensland at the same time. Spending every night reading, and writing essays, and sending them off by post, Peter received long responses from his teachers in this epistolary education. By the end of his degree, Peter was admitted to practice, placed first on the roll, and offered a job as a tutor at the University of Queensland. Despite never having set foot in a university in his life, Peter again felt the calling of a vocation, this time more aptly. He was about to accept the position, when one of his lecturers at the university recruited him for a job at the law firm of Baker and McKenzie, in a role linking the Sydney and London practices. Peter accepted the position and was sent to London where he met Shelby, who was to become his wife. (In his words, the ‘most significant thing that’s happened to me’).

Two years later, Peter was approached by Professor William Twining, a noted jurisprudent of a different style, to take up a position at Queens University Belfast. This was at the same time that the ‘troubles’ began in Northern Ireland, and there is no doubt more to be said about that period, and Peter and Shelby’s community involvement. Belfast was also where they celebrated the birth of Tesher, their first child. But a few years later, another offer was to arrive that would decisively shape Peter’s scholarly trajectory. This time Peter was approached by Justice John Minogue, head of the Supreme Court in Papua New Guinea, then still under Australian administration. The task was to go to PNG and conduct research funded by the Commonwealth Foundation, on village level economic organisation. Peter took up that role, and spent six years in PNG, where his and Shelby’s second child, Vagi, was born. As well as researching and writing the report, Peter also worked for Michael Somare, later to become the first Prime Minister of an independent PNG. Those experiences were to lead some years later, to Peter’s first book, Law and the State in Papua New Guinea, published in 1980. That book was among the first anthropologically inflected texts written by a legal scholar. It was unusual in its refusal of the modernization narratives being taken up by other white legal academics at the time. Instead of the hubris and idealism which marks many books from ‘First World’ Scholars of the same period, Law and the State in Papua New Guinea is a restrained but fierce account of ‘imposed law’ and its effects in reconfiguring peoples in the process of decolonisation. In its attention to imperial and post-imperial political economy at the same time as to the Eurocentrism of orthodox Marxism, it remains a text of critical importance in understanding ‘law and development’, as well as both the relevance and limitations of Marxist thought to the postcolony.

After 6 years in PNG, Peter had planned to return to Australia. But a job at the Australian National University was offered and disappeared in the political tumult of Australia, circa November 1975. With a young family to support, and not much love lost between Peter and Australian colonial officials, Peter returned to the UK where he accepted a job at the University of Kent. This time he was recruited by Professor Claire Palley whom he had known at Belfast, who was the first woman law professor – and female law Dean – in the UK. During his 20 years at Kent, Peter was a key figure, with Maureen Cain and Allan Hunt, in the establishment of the British ‘Critical Legal Conference’, a movement turned conference (turned movement) that was to prove crucial in fostering and supporting critically oriented legal scholarship in the United Kingdom, and which continues today. He left Kent in 1996 to join the faculty at Queen Mary, and a few years later became Anniversary Professor in Law at Birkbeck College, University of London where he stayed until his retirement. Peter also held an honorary chair at Kent, and a Fellowship at the Oñati International Institute for the Sociology of Law. As well as his role in the Critical Legal Conference, Peter was a significant institutional and intellectual contributor to the fields of socio-legal studies, law and humanities, and law and literature in the Anglophone world.

The work for which Peter became most widely known was The Mythology of Modern Law, published in 1992. This work described law’s role in the mystical securing of Occidental modernity. It changed the way a generation of scholars approached the relation between race, law and empire. A 25 year retrospective was held at Melbourne University in 2017, and a series of reflections on the book’s influence published in the Australian Feminist Law Journal. This is not the place to recite all of Peter’s publications, but for me, two more need special mention. The first is Dangerous Supplements : Resistance and Renewal in Jurisprudence, published in 1991, but which I encountered several years later when studying in Canada, and which jolted my understanding of law like an electric shock. The second is Modernism and the Grounds of Law, published in 2001, and as always, not quite of its time. Grounds offers the most sustained exploration of Peter’s original account of law as always moving between determinacy and responsiveness, or fixity and change. It also develops Peter’s insights on the relationship between authority and myths of origination which were to have a significant impact on many theorists of international law. The book Reading Modern Law: Critical Methodologies and Sovereign Formations which Ruth Buchanan, Stewart Motha and I edited in 2013, offers a series of essays by noted scholars, engaging the thought of Grounds. As well as several books on law, race, resistance and the nation, and works on law and literature, Peter was also known for his work on Foucault. A fruitful collaboration with Ben Golder produced Foucault’s Law in 2009 and Foucault and Law in 2010. Peter received many honours in the course of his career, including the James Boyd White Award from the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities in 2007, “honouring outstanding scholarly achievement in the field”.

But despite this influence and recognition, the Peter I knew never sought status, or chased prestige, and was a different kind of academic than I think most of us are now. Some of this difference is the university, and its transformations over the last 20 years, but some of it is just who he was, and the unique way he took up the role of scholar, teacher and supervisor. I remember one lecture he gave to younger scholars in Montreal, called the ‘irresponsibility of the intellectual’. In that lecture, perhaps at the height of Blair’s Britain, Peter exhorted us to eschew the Governmental catnip of ‘policy relevance’, and the light trip over the surface of things it could bring. Instead, we should study slowly and doggedly what lay underneath. Insistently reading, always reading. This was not pragmatic ‘career advice’, but an account of scholarly office that laid bare what was at stake in the rush to ‘excellence’.

Peter was known for many things, but from his first student, Colin Perrin, to his last clutch of PhD students who will no doubt write tributes of their own, Peter was renowned as an extraordinary supervisor. For me, under his care from 2002 until 2009, his supervision was transformative. I still can’t believe my luck in having had the chance to work with him. Perhaps it was his ability to challenge and support us at the same time that encouraged us to extend our thought in ways we never dreamt possible. I sometimes asked Peter how he learned to supervise, given that he had never done a PhD, nor had a supervisor himself. He had, as usual, no programmatic answer. But I did sometimes suspect that having had no mentor himself, he imagined the one he would have wanted, and let that impossible figure be his guide. As I now supervise my own students, I sometimes laugh at myself for wondering ‘what would Peter do?’ Invariably I fall short of his example, but I am always surprised, and buoyed to remember just how generous he was, even at his most demanding. And even the memory of that generosity encourages me to do better.

There is more I could write, particularly about Peter’s sense of humour, and the way he and Shelby brought us into their lives. But perhaps that’s the right place to stop. With an image of Peter and Shelby, and the garden at the Old Vicarage that delighted and consoled so many of us at different times. The garden to which Peter has returned. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


  1. Thank you for writing this, Sun.

  2. A beautiful tribute. He must have been very special.


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