The University of Texas at Austin   School of Law

Main menu:

January 24, 2007

Press Contact: Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu

Britain’s Telegraph: Professor Sir Basil Markesinis Earns Rare French Honor

Photo of Professor Markesinis with blue sash and gold insignia
Prof Sir Basil Markesinis after receiving the award: 'I'm very chuffed'

Beneath the crystal chandeliers and gilt carvings of an 18th-century Paris salon, the French government granted one of its highest honours to a British lawyer on Tuesday evening.

Prof Sir Basil Markesinis QC was awarded the blue sash and gold insignia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, only the sixth Englishman to receive the honour since it was created by de Gaulle in 1963.

He already holds the Légion d'Honneur, though at a slightly lower level.

"I'm very chuffed," he says. This award is only the latest in a mantelpiece-full of academic fellowships and civil honours that Sir Basil has received from throughout Europe, including his knighthood two years ago for services to international legal relations. But, despite his distinction, the subject to which he has devoted his academic career is something of a mystery to non-lawyers.

Born in German-occupied Athens in 1944 to a Greek father of Venetian ancestry, Sir Basil learned English and inherited one of his nationalities from his British-born mother, whose Greek family, from the island of Chios, had escaped to Britain in the 1820s.

After being awarded his first degree in Athens at a precociously early age, Sir Basil took a doctorate in Paris and then another in Cambridge.

"The real problem – and the real advantage – is that I had finished law school at the age of 19," he recalls. "I was unemployable. So I ended up studying at various places – Paris, Munich, Amsterdam."

That unusual breadth of experience, coupled with the understanding he acquired of European languages and culture, laid the foundations for a career in what is known as comparative law – the study of how different legal systems cope with common problems.

It was a career that took him to some of the world's leading universities, where he actively raised funds and founded institutes to teach the subject he has made his own.

Anyone can learn about a foreign legal system, he believes. But the advantage of his highly complex background is in helping him to appreciate how foreign lawyers think.

"Understanding the differences in mentality – understanding linguistic and conceptual differences – is what influenced the way I tried to shape the teaching of foreign law in this country," he tells me at his home in Oxfordshire.

Sir Basil's commitment to spreading the word about foreign systems of law is all the more remarkable in the light of his family background. Presenting him with his award on Tuesday at the Assemblée nationale, the lower house of the French parliament, its president, Jean-Louis Debré, recalled that Sir Basil's parents met during the war and joined the same resistance cell.

He pointed out that the suffering Sir Basil's parents had endured in occupied Greece did not prevent the young lawyer from enthusiastically embracing German and other continental systems of law after the war.

With that, the Frenchman pinned the badge of the order on Sir Basil's chest and kissed him on both cheeks.

"I don't deserve it – except that I think I am one of the few people who have really fought for an open mind towards ideas," Sir Basil says. "Probe everything and keep the best," he says, quoting St Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians – in his own pithy translation.

Is an multi-national heritage essential for comparative lawyers? "One of the finest comparative lawyers this country ever had was Harry Lawson, who was a typical Yorkshireman, though with great sensitivity to these nuances of foreign law," he says. "But almost 99 per cent of the distinguished comparative lawyers, in the generation that influenced me, were central European Jewish refugees."

What, though, is the point of comparative law?

Sir Basil sees his role as "packaging" foreign legal concepts in a way that English lawyers and judges can understand and digest.

"That does not mean that English law is suddenly going to become German law, or French law." He would not favour that. "But it does mean that by talking, and exchanging ideas, lawyers can learn – and understand – their own system."

He gives the example of the Fairchild judgment in 2002, when the law lords allowed the widow of a worker who had died from asbestos-related cancer to sue any one of several former employers without proving which one had been responsible for his illness – something that is beyond the capacity of medical science to establish. In following the continental approach rather than existing English law on this point, the law lords drew on Sir Basil's study of German law.

Most of the impetus for importing foreign laws comes from the world's newer courts, he notes. Israel's recently-retired chief justice Aharon Barak often imported German rulings – though, perhaps understandably, without attribution. Chief Justice Bark's decision to apply Canadian principles on the equal treatment of homosexuals led to calls for his resignation.

One country that always seems impervious to foreign influences, particularly in human rights law, is the United States. Sir Basil accepts that conservatives on the US Supreme Court such as William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia have spoken against the "fads and fashions of Europe". Robert Bork, whose nomination to the court was famously rejected by the US Senate 20 years ago, has referred to comparative lawyers as faux-intellectuals.

But other past and present Supreme Court justices – Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer – are more open to ideas from Europe and elsewhere.

The reasons are broadly historical, Sir Basil says. He suspects that John Roberts, appointed by President Bush in 2005 to succeed Chief Justice Rehnquist, may turn out to be more moderate than people expected. "In the meantime, I think the swing-vote, the successor to Sandra Day O'Connor, is going to be Anthony Kennedy."

You can see why the French are grateful to Sir Basil. They must feel threatened by the dominance of English common law in the settlement of international commercial disputes. As Sir Basil was reminded in Paris on Tuesday, he has spoken in the past of his "devotion" to France and the French legal system.

"But they certainly have not rewarded me for praising their system," he insists. "I have always found things that are unattractive in their system, and the German system and the Italian system – just as I have found unattractive things in the English system."

Indeed, but what he has achieved is to make judgments and statutes from these three continental systems – and now from the courts of Israel and Austria – available on a public website in English. Translating legal documents is clearly an expensive business, and the work has been funded by donors to the University of Texas, where the website is housed.

Next on the horizon for the indefatigable and well-connected Sir Basil is a forthcoming book called Good and Evil in Art and Law.

Chapter Two, for example, compares Don Giovanni, Faust and Satan with a "sick, sick, sick" 17-year-old American murderer, a recidivist child molester from North Wales, and the two journalists from the Sunday Sport who talked their way into the hospital ward where Gorden Kaye, the actor who played René in 'Allo, 'Allo, was recovering from a serious head injury. Comparative law was never so interesting.

Related Link:

H.M. Queen Elizabeth II Confers Knighthood on Professor Basil Markesinis:
http://www.utexas.edu/law/news/2005/010505_knighthood.html