R. W. “Mickey” Dias
It was a sense of sadness that I read of the death of R. W. Michael
Dias, QC, a gentleman and an internationally recognized legal scholar.
He died in the University town of Cambridge, on 17th November 2009,
having spent the last 70 years of his life in the United Kingdom.
He was born in Sri Lanka to a family of legal luminaries which
included Sir Harry Dias Bandaranaike, Judge of the Supreme Court and
Acting Chief Justice, Mr. F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Judge of the Supreme
Court, and his father Dr. R. F. Dias Bandaranaike, Senior Puisne
His brother Felix Dias Bandaranaike was a respected Parliamentarian
who served Sri Lanka in the capacity of both Minister of Justice and
Minister of Finance.
Michael Dias referred to affectionately as “Mickey”. spent most of
his academic life, firstly, as a student and then as a Lecturer in law
at Cambridge University.
At the University of Cambridge he had a plethora of distinguished men
as his former pupils including Professors Sir Derek Bowett, Sir D. J.
Williams, Bob Hepple and Colin Turpin.
Professor Kirk Lipstein was a colleague and fellow student and
Michael Dias together with Kurt Lipstein had the distinction of being
the only two students to participate in the Roman Law seminars conducted
by such internationally recognize writers as Professor Sir David Daube
and William Buckland.
The sermon at the funeral service of Michael Dias held in Magdalene
College Chapel was delivered by the Right Reverend Simon Barington-Ward,
KCMG, Honourary, Fellow of Magdalene College.
Michael Dias used both his deep understanding of the theories and
principles of the English common law and of the civil law to provide him
with a firm foundation for his incisive excursions into classical
theories of Jurisprudence.
In the several editions of his book on Jurisprudence, the method of
expounding the eclectic nature of the theories of Jurisprudence in a
manner that provided students with a simple narration of the complex
theories of Jurisprudence made “Dias on Jurisprudence” synonymous with
both clarity and depth.
His contributions to legal theory in the nature of analytical
Jurisprudence classed him amongst such giants as von Savigny and von
When Michael Dias authored the first edition of his book on
Jurisprudence in 1957 he incorporated into the book a chapter on
He analyzed the two then prevailing theories of “Possession” put
forward by von Savigny in the 1803 edition of Das Recht des Besitzes
(translated into English by Perry in 1848) and von Ihering in the 1868
edition of “Grund des Besitzeschutezes (translated by Meulenaer in
1889). Both von Savigny and von Ihering arrived at the concept of
possession through an extensive analysis of the Roman Texts.
Dias showed that the texts used by the two German scholars were in
fact those edited and commented upon by the Glossators - in other words
post Glossators texts. Dias through a careful analysis of the much older
and unedited classical Roman law texts of Justinian showed that the
concept of possession in fact lay somewhere between the views held by
the two German scholars.
By resorting to decided English cases, Dias established and
reinforced the strength of his own theory, mainly that neither of the
two German scholars provided the correct approach to an understanding of
the important concept of “Possession.”. It is an accepted fact in legal
theory that the concept of “Possession” provides for nine tenths of the
law and that Dias’ theory has had a profound impact on its study.
As a student in the LLB final year at University College, London,
(the College that Jeremy Benthan established in circa 1820, before the
founding of the University of London in 1920) that I listened with a
sense of pride to Prof. Lord Lloyd who told us in his lecture on
Jurisprudence that “Possession” provided the basis for nine tenths of
the law, and that three exponents of that concept were “Savigny, Ihering
He went on to say that the English Law and the classical Roman Law
support Dias. In the same final year I had the opportunity to take an
advance course in Roman Law.
It was a special course on Justinian’s Digest 41.1 and 41.2 - on
concepts of Ownership and Possession in the Roman Law. The late
Professor Raphael Powel who had a class of five, having referred to both
the German scholars, took up Dias whom he described as providing “The
Modern Law of “Possession.”
Powel also pointed out some of the uncontradicted views of the Roman
scholar Giaus supported Dias’ conclusions. It was during that course on
Justinian’s Digest 41.1 and 41.2 that I realized with awe the
significance of the contribution which a Ceylonese (a Sri Lankan)
scholar had made to Jurisprudence (Legal Theory).”
Apart from these Michael Dias in later years made valuable
contributions to the law pertaining to Civil Wrongs (Torts/Delicts). His
theory of Causation spun out of the Privy Council’s decision of the
“Wagon Mound” dealt with both the philosophical and textual strands of
the concept of Causation.
Utilizing his expansive knowledge of Legal Theory as his foundation,
Dias built around it his excursions into other areas of law, namely
Civil Wrongs (Torts) and Comparative Law.
He continued for many years as Editor of Clerk & Lindsell, the
leading academic and practitioner’s work on the law of Torts. At a Essay
prize-giving in year 1985, Magdalene. College Cambridge referred to Dias
as “a fine teacher, clear, perceptive, inspiring confidence, getting the
best out of every undergraduate, and obtaining a “harvest of firsts”.
As a person, Michael Dias never did flaunt his standing in Academic
circles. He was never given to self adulation and never spoke of himself
or his work at public lectures, as it is often done by persons of lesser
He was a man-of-ideas and his public persona was maintained through
his published works and never through his own word of mouth. The word
“I” never found a comfortable place in his vocabulary. These attributes
I find are the hallmarks of a refined scholar.
On one occasion at a meeting of the Society of Public Teachers of Law
(SPTL) held in Edinburgh, I had the occasion to introduce Michael Dias
to a meeting of Teachers of Law from the United Kingdom and from other
parts of the Common Law world.
I had come adequately prepared to introduce the speaker. He sought me
out to tell me that “Michael Dias would do”. He then added with a smile
“I mean it”. I was somewhat apprehensive of making such a brief
introduction from the chair.
However, I then remembered the special formula which the President of
the Oxford Union once used when introducing Sir Winston Churchill. He
said, “some Chairmen are regularly accused of bad chairmanship if they
do not take time to introduce a speaker adequately. But today it is
I have the privilege of presenting to you Michael Dias of Magdalene”
I decided to rely on that statement by merely replacing “Sir Winston
Churchill” with “Michael Dias”. There was resounding applause and I
cannot bring myself to assume that it was not only for the speaker but
for the Chair that introduced him.
I had several opportunities of meeting Michael Dias in Cambridge,
often having the pleasure of lunching with him. I met him soon after
that awful tragedy in his life when his beloved wife Norah who
accompanied him on his visit to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was
killed in an airplane accident, together with the wife of his Fellow
External Examiner, the pilot and the pilot’s wife.
Dias had gone to Southern Rhodesia to be one of the External
Examiners at the Faculty of Law and the University had arranged a visit
to a wildlife sanctuary for their wives when the twin engined airplane
crashed, killing all on board. Outwardly Michael maintained a sense of
stoicism and would continue to look to the future rather than regret the
My personal regret, however, extended to another sphere, mainly that
after having enroled for my Doctorate with Dias as my Supervisor, the
University of Cambridge Senate broughtforth a requirement that a
candidate must reside within, I believe it is five miles from the
Being at University College London I was clearly unable to keep to
that requirement. Regretfully I lost an opportunity to do my work under
his supervision. I consequently enrolled in London and completed my work
selecting a very different topic.
Michael Dias and I both had our early education at Royal Preparatory
School and later at Royal College. Of course our spells at Royal
embraced different time spans.
We both studied Latin at Royal. Dias excelled in mastering that
language and I was depressingly bad in it. However, in later years I was
to develop a love for Roman Law. I did three years of Roman Law at
University College which included the LL.M in which I did Roman Law of
During that period my visits to Cambridge to meet Michael Dias
provided me with a learning experience. It was during that period that
he suggested the topic for me for a doctoral thesis to be supervised by
him. And it was in Roman Law.
The title of the proposed research was “A Comparative Study of
Transfer of Rights in the Roman and the English Laws.” What a splendid
opportunity that I was compelled to forego due to my economic compulsion
to reside and work out of London.
I am greatly thankful to Michael Dias for his help in guiding me
through example, to understand what knowledge is all about and that
knowledge is never an end in itself and that a mixture of knowledge with
humility makes a near perfect human being, notwithstanding that some
academics may consider they are perfect and that they are God’s gift to
Michael always believed that knowledge was the best gift one could
leave behind for mankind, and that never has there been a human being
who was perfect. He did leave behind an enormous intellectual legacy for
In the circles in which Michael Dias was known, he shall always be
remembered as a Gentleman and a Scholar.