On 4th October 1957 the singer, Little Richard, saw God. He was on stage in Australia when he saw a light streaking across the sky. He immediately renounced his rock and roll ways and for the rest of his life he dedicated himself to the Lord or Sputnik, as it was more commonly called because, that night, Little Richard un-knowingly saw the launch of the first satellite into space.
That satellite also inspired an ex-Nazi scientist in America to go on TV and tell Walt Disney that America would win the space race as part of a publicity blitz by the American government to fire a rocket designed by a Satanist following the teachings of Alastair Crowley and Albert Einstein. A sentence I never thought I’d write but it is one which is completely true. A Nazi built a rocket designed by a scientist who worshipped Satan and thought he was destined to be the Anti-Christ. I hate to think which candidates NASA rejected.
“Hello, I work with small children and fluffy animals and I just want to make sure they are happy!”
“Hello, I cure cancer.”
“Hello, do you accept Satan as your lawful masters and worship the great beast, Cthulu, and all it’s multi-tentacled nightmares from space?”
The history of the twentieth century as explained by John Higg’s book ‘Stranger Than We Can Imagine’ is the story of how history can not be viewed from one angle but can only be glimpsed from a hundred different stories, all equally true. In a series of linked chapters he explains the impact of Einstein’s theory of relativity on art, politics, science and culture and the idea that there are many perspectives led to rock and roll, the internet, a man on the moon and the shattering of empires. You can find it here: Stranger Than We Can Imagine.
I think it had an impact on me because I’d just finished an article on the same topic – relativity, not Hitler – and how different perspectives change the way we think about laws. I’ve included it below because of all the things I’ve written this year, this was one I was most proud of. And the fact that it’s themes tied into my favourite book was just a nice coincidence to end the year.
Greenlights – Matthew McConaughey
One. Two. Three. Four – Craig Brown
The Last Policeman – Ben Winters
Things I Learned From Falling – Claire Nelson
“Have you checked with Paisley? What about Gretton & Reid? I think McAlister might have something to say about this.”
When I started as a lawyer in a busy property team at a large national firm I’d hear conversations like this every day. At first I wondered who these people were. I’d not been introduced to my new colleague, Mr Paisley, on my first day. Were Gretton & Reid partners on another floor? And while there was a McAlister in the IT team – I wouldn’t trust him to switch a computer off and on again never mind seek his opinion on a rent review clause, so it couldn’t be him, could it?
Every day I’d hear those names and it was only a couple of weeks later after checking the internal directory and drawing a blank that I realised that these were not people, they were books. No one referred to books by their title. No one said, “have you checked ‘Servitudes and Rights of Way’, ‘Conveyancing’ or ‘Scottish Law of Leases’?”. Instead, books were called by the author’s name. Which I thought was nice. It was friendly. It felt like I knew them. And this was a personal link to not just current authors but also such big names as Stair or Erskine. These weren’t just law books; they were a glimpse into the minds of the men that wrote them.
And I use “men” deliberately because, all the way back to Roman times, property law has almost exclusively been written by men. The institutional writers were men. The main textbooks we read each day are by men. There are very few textbooks by female authors. And there are none as far as I’m aware by a BAME author. Instead we have many, many books written by white men – myself included as I have written three textbooks and currently edit ‘Rennie’s Scottish Conveyancing Legislation’.
I understand that change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to gain experience and confidence to write a textbook and this will inevitable favour older lawyers and academics who are more likely to be male. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t help the future along by questioning if we have a problem with how we talk and write about property law.
I believe that ‘law’ is not just the legislation issued by government but also the textbooks, commentary and articles that help flesh out and explain it to lawyers and the public. The best textbooks and commentary help us understand ‘the law’. They fill in gaps, they reconcile differences, they suggest changes or they show how laws work in practice and not just on the page. This very journal is a great example of that – it helps lawyers apply the law to all the different situations that arise when you deal with clients, with people.
And those textbooks, commentaries and articles are only enhanced if lawyers with different experiences are heard, particularly in matters relating to housing and property where peoples experience of ‘home’ or, in light of the land reform agenda, ‘community’ are very different depending on their gender or race or background. The law is a mirror. Yet in conveyancing it only reflects one view.
I believe it is vital we start to wrestle with the issues raised around the lack of diversity in how we talk and write about property law. This is particularly vital as we move to home working and as new trainees and lawyers grapple with learning the basics of property law and conveyancing in living rooms and kitchens rather than with colleagues in offices. They rely more on textbooks and commentary and the diversity that they may have received from working with colleagues in offices will be missing from their bookshelves at home. We can and should do more.
As a start, I have set myself the goal of adding a co-editor to ‘Scottish Conveyancing Legislation’ and I will be actively looking for individual contributions from under-represented groups to review existing commentary and to work on new comments on future legislation. And, as a next step, I publish this article with the hope that by publishing it I can start a debate as to whether such changes are required and, if so, what more can we do to ensure the property law in the twenty first century reflects all the people who work in property and all the clients who rely on it today.