Today Otago’s law school offers a substantial full-time programme, located at the heart of the Dunedin campus, in the Richardson Building. But it hasn’t always been that way. Law is one of Otago’s oldest subjects – it was first taught in 1873, the third year that the university provided lectures – but for many decades it was a precarious and part-time enterprise. Qualifying as a lawyer in the nineteenth century involved being articled to a trained lawyer and passing the required exams; university classes supplemented this apprenticeship system.
Otago’s first law lecturer was the impressive Robert Stout, after whom the law library is named. He arrived in Otago from Shetland in 1863 and taught school for some years before training as a lawyer. He was one of the University of Otago’s founding students, undertaking courses in mental and moral science and political economy. In 1873 he offered lectures in common law to a class of 18 students – a number which would not be equalled again for some decades. Stout resigned in 1875 when he was elected to the House of Representatives. He went on to a distinguished political career, including 3 years as Premier of New Zealand and 26 years as Chief Justice. He also played a major role in New Zealand university administration and was a key figure in founding Victoria University of Wellington.
A series of local lawyers succeeded Stout as part-time law lecturer, teaching specialist papers for the LLB degree, for which the University of New Zealand provided regulations from 1877. There wasn’t much incentive to complete a degree, which wasn’t necessary for qualification as a solicitor or barrister, so classes remained tiny. Law students were generally employed in local law firms, with classes taking place after hours in their teachers’ offices or at the Supreme Court building. They studied in the Otago District Law Society’s library.
In 1901, with few law students and a financial crisis, the University of Otago’s council decided to “terminate the appointments of Dr. W. D. Milne, Lecturer on Jurisprudence, and Mr. A. R. Barclay, M.H.R., Lecturer on Constitutional History and Law, and to abstain for the present from teaching these subjects at the University.” In 1905 the District Law Society convinced the university to begin legal classes again, with the lecturers funded purely from student fees, and three years later the first full-time lecturer in law was appointed. Unfortunately for Otago, James Garrow only stayed three years, leaving to become foundation Professor of Law in Wellington. After another interval of a couple of years, the university reverted to its previous custom of appointing local practitioners as part-time lecturers, this time with the expense heavily subsidised by the District Law Society. In 1913, when the Faculty of Law was created, it boasted 47 students, probably all part-time. Numbers waxed and waned over the next four decades, reaching as high as 91 in 1928, and as low as 8 in 1942.
In 1959, more than 80 years after first offering lectures in law, Otago finally appointed its first full-time Professor of Law, Frank Guest, who also served as dean to a faculty of 14 staff and 99 students. Classes grew too large for the facilities in the court building and in 1966, with student numbers about to hit 200 for the first time, the law school moved onto the main campus, taking over the former registry building (previously the first Dental School, now the Staff Club). The decades of the part-time “night school” came to an end and law became, for most students, a full-time field of study. Prospective lawyers could complete a LLB degree in four years, followed by a year of study to complete their professional qualification. For decades law students had been somewhat geographically, socially and intellectually isolated from the university, but now they could take a full part in student life.
There have been many changes to the law school since it moved on campus in the 1960s, but I’ll save those for a future post. Do you have any memories to share of law at Otago in its “night school” years?