HAROLD FORD, AM
PROFESSOR OF LAW
WITH the death of Harold Ford, the Australian legal community has lost a remarkable teacher, scholar, law reformer and author, who was the undisputed founding father of modern Australian corporations law. His contribution to commercial law over six decades is unequalled and
his influence impossible to overstate.
Many knew Ford as an inspiring teacher, others as a generous mentor, senior colleague and law school dean. Some worked with him on law reform or similar committees, and many generations of lawyers have relied on his authoritative publications in corporations law, trusts and related areas.
Harold Arthur John Ford was born in Coburg in 1920 and grew up during the
Great Depression, when
his family experienced considerable financial adversity. He attended University High School, and subsequently embarked on his stellar legal career, not as a cosseted university student but as a 16-year-old part-timer in the articled-clerks course in which, following leave on naval service during World War II, he won the Supreme Court Prize.
Ford's first academic appointment was in 1949, as senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne law school, which (save for a few brief intervals) remained his academic home.
At the outset, he was one of only five full-time lecturers, who were supported by part-time practitioners.
Between 1949 and 1960,
Ford taught a wide repertoire of subjects. For some of this time, he worked under the transforming influence of Sir Zelman Cowen and later recalled the kindly encouragement he received from Sir Owen Dixon, who was a member of his appointment committee.
During 1954 and 1955, Ford completed a doctor of juridical science degree at Harvard,
and his dissertation on
unincorporated associations was subsequently published.
He never lost his interest in American law and affairs, and up to very recently avidly followed developments in the Supreme Court and coming election. His interest in America was mutual, as Professor Ford enjoyed a significant reputation both there and throughout the common law world.
In 1960, Ford was appointed Robert Garran professor of law at the Australian National University but in 1962 returned to take up the chair of commercial law at the University of Melbourne, which he held with great distinction until his retirement in 1984.
In 1962, Ford also married Gwenda, a secretary in the law school, whom he had shyly admired for some time. It was a long and very happy marriage, and over the years the couple raised three children, Rebecca, Margaret and John.
When Ford took up his chair, company law was something of a Cinderella subject. Its critical analysis and teaching were undeveloped.
There was no Australian text, and lawyers relied on Professor L.C.B.Gower's English work.
In 1974, Ford met the Australian profession's need with the first edition of what (through 14 editions over four decades) ultimately became Ford's Principles of Corporations Law. An essential text for all legal practitioners, it is now continued by his co-authors, Professor Ian Ramsay and
Dr Robert Austin.
In his pioneering work,
Ford surpassed Gower in conceptual organisation. He offered crystalline, accurate propositions, and the comprehensive yet succinct coverage so beloved of practitioners. This was combined, remarkably, with a deep and coherent exposition
of underlying principles.
Ford also produced (with W.A. Lee) a leading text on trusts, as equity was his twin, pre-eminent interest. He also published prolifically in other areas, such as wills and succession, securities and death duties, sometimes with eminent co-authors including Marcia Neave, Robert Baxt, Ian Hardingham and Graeme Samuel.
Company and trusts law remained, however, his principal passions, as he was fascinated and inspired by the concept of legal personality that their relationship illuminated.
Ford's mastery of the subjects was enriched by an intellectual attribute rare even among the most senior lawyers. His
reasoning was not
constrained by specialisation and narrow experience. He could discourse across the boundaries of subject labels, cross-referencing, cross-questioning and cross-informing, from the vantage of his vast learning, prodigious memory and a special quality of mind.
Ford's skilful approach
made complex commercial law intelligible and engaging. He usually began with the historical problems and mischiefs it was intended to meet. He did not talk down or oversimplify, but closed the immense knowledge gap between himself and his students, enlivening his lectures with diverting puns and spontaneous wit.
Gifted teaching was not a sufficient explanation for the effect Ford produced on six or seven generations of his
students. Even the toughest veteran practitioners have been observed to soften magically and smile at the mention of his name. The abiding, universal fondness springs from Ford's singular combination of intellectual and professional eminence with simple,
old-fashioned virtues, humility, gentleness and personal integrity.
There is much more that
can only be touched on. As a dean of the University of Melbourne law school in 1964 and from 1967 to 1973, Ford was highly successful, advanced and innovative, introducing, under fair and benevolent leadership, several important and forward-looking measures. He was active on innumerable law reform committees and related bodies, the development of Asian law teaching and the establishment of the Leo Cussen Institute, of which he was the foundation chairman.
After his formal retirement, he was for some time a consultant at a large law firm working in insolvency, which he also taught in a postgraduate course.
Ford long kept up his contributions to his corporations and trusts texts. He was computer literate and kept pace with all the latest decisions. Above all, he was always eager for news of people in the law. He knew so many, had forgotten none and never lost his sympathetic interest in their doings.
In 2008 Gwenda died and Ford, who had nursed her tenderly through her last illness, moved to an apartment at a retirement complex. He was particularly gratified by the University of Melbourne law school's establishment, in 2010, of the Harold Ford JD Scholarships in his honour.
Following a short illness, Ford died peacefully, a month short of his 92nd birthday, surrounded by his family.
Ford is irreplaceable and a much loved man. His life touched and enriched so many and he will be remembered as a gifted and generous scholar, teacher and friend.
The above is based on a eulogy delivered at Harold Ford's funeral by his former student and colleague, Justice Julie Dodds-Streeton of the Federal Court of Australia.