UCL Faculty of Laws


Tribute to Professor Michael Freeman FBA

9 July 2024

It is with sadness that we share the news that Professor Michael Freeman, FBA, passed away on 3 July.

Michael Freeman

Professor Freeman (Emeritus Professor of English Law) was a world-renowned scholar in the fields of Family Law, Child Law and Policy, Children’s Rights, Medical Ethics and the Law and Jurisprudence and Legal Theory. He was particularly passionate about children’s rights and his pioneering work in this and his other fields set the stage for debates that continue to this day.

Professor Freeman began his academic career at Leeds University. He moved to UCL in 1969 where he remained until his retirement in 2011. Over the course of his 42 year career at UCL his energy, intellectual curiosity and generosity were boundless. Generations of students remember his classes in Family Law, Medical Ethics and the Law, Jurisprudence and Children’s Rights. He published over 85 books and countless articles. He convened the faculty’s flagship Current Legal Problems series of lectures and edited the publications from 1993 to 2004. He founded and organised the Current Legal Issues series of colloquia which ran from 1998 to 2015. He was the Founding Editor of the International Journal of Children’s Rights; Founding Editor of the International Journal of Law in Context, General Editor of International Library of Medicine, Ethics and Law and of the International Library of Family, Society and Law and was editor of the renowned Lloyd’s Jurisprudence.  But Professor Freeman’s astonishing body of work did not end with his retirement. Among other things, in 2015 he delivered the prestigious Hamlyn Lectures which were published in 2020 as A Magna Carta for Children. And these are only some of his outstanding accomplishments.

Professor Freeman’s extraordinary innovation and contribution to legal education and legal scholarship only tell part of the story, however. The other part is his warmth, generosity, sense of mischief and passion for social justice. Mentoring and supporting early and mid-career career scholars, not only at UCL, but across the international academic community was also a fundamental part of who he was. He inspired students and scholars across the globe. In 2013 the Faculty of Laws convened a colloquium honouring him and his work entitled Current Legal Issues: ‘Law and Michael Freeman’ to which more than 100 participants from 12 different countries came to hear papers from over 40 leading academics, lawyers and senior judges. 

Generations of students at UCL will remember Professor Freeman’s inspiring teaching. When he retired, events were held at UCL and at the law offices of former students. Over one hundred people attended the UCL event alone and those who were unable to come sent heartfelt notes of appreciation. Looking through these and other cards and letters, we saw thanks for his entertaining lectures (his wit wasn’t lost on students), his continual support and words such as friendly, encouraging, inspiring, stimulating, patient, and memorable used to describe his teaching and supervision. It is no surprise that Professor Freeman won numerous teaching awards.

Professor Freeman was completely dedicated to UCL’s ethos and to its role as educator. For all of his achievements, for his dedication, his indefatigable energy, his warmth, feistiness, sense of mischief, and above all, his integrity, UCL Laws has much to be grateful. Most of all, we, his colleagues are grateful for his enormous generosity of spirit, time and intellect. Professor Freeman’s passing is a huge loss to those who knew him, the Faculty, and to the legal world. Our thoughts are with Professor Freeman’s family during this difficult time.

Paying tribute to Professor Freeman Alison Diduck said:

‘I was an admirer of Michael’s work in family and child law when I was back in Canada and was slightly worried about meeting him when I arrived in the UK in 1992. One is always, I think, worried about meeting those whose work one admires – worried they will turn out to be a jerk or pompous or disappointing in some other way. But Michael was not disappointing at all. In fact, he was the opposite. When I first met him at a conference in 1993, he was funny and down to earth. He was supportive, encouraging and enthusiastic and I learned then that that was how he was with all young scholars. He treated us as peers. And then when I came to UCL in 2003, he welcomed me and made me feel immediately at home. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from him, and to work with him in our teaching, writing and co-supervising of research students.  As a colleague he was unceasingly generous, always professional, and rather good fun, too. As a friend, he was always there. His love of his work, of music and cricket were legendary and I remember the times he would pop by my office and identify, within 5-10 seconds, not only the piece of classical music playing on my radio, but usually the orchestra and the conductor too. He was a true renaissance man with a profound sense of social justice. I will miss dearly my colleague and friend.’

Professor Freeman’s former student and colleague Riz Mokal said:

‘Mike Freeman's Thursday morning undergraduate seminars in the Keeton Room in 1995-96 fizzed with energy. Insights from legal positivism and Dworkinian antipositivism, from natural law theory and feminist, sociological, and other critical legal studies, all were somehow caused to bubble up from the depths, leavened by drollness, and brought into conversation. We students felt able to take on the giants in the field, safe in the knowledge that our genial guide was himself a master – the 6th edition of Lloyd’s, published the previous year, was on every other desk – and had our backs. It was only years later, teaching the subject myself, that I really understood the challenge of locating those veins of insightful humour in jurisprudential writings that Mike had so effortlessly and copiously tapped. 

In 2001, I struck gold twice over. I took up a lectureship at UCL Laws, my home away from a faraway home. And I was assigned an office on the third floor of Bentham House that was next to Mike’s. Chatting with Mike became a sufficient reason to go into Bentham House even if, on the day, I had no other. He was very much part of UCL Laws and his memory was rich with detail. His gossip about serious, sometimes revered, often self-important figures was characteristically amusing and sometimes cutting, though it never lacked in sympathy. I relished the telling and retelling of these stories and the warmth and palpable kindness of the teller. 

And I had the pleasure of seeing new stories take shape. Reminiscing about Mike, Jonathan Rogers, another former mutual colleague, wrote that "Many who knew him will remember their own favourite Michael Freeman quote. Whether they can properly share it is another matter!" Here is one I can share. A part-timer of a particular vintage brought a copy of the Daily Mail to the Keeton Room, went to the loo, and returned to find it in the bin. Mike and I had walked in while the item’s proprietor had been absent, Mike had asked around, and when no one owned up, the receptacle was duly fed. The reader was incandescent, Mike only decorously apologetic. As he said by way of explanation, the Mail had supported quite the wrong side in the 1930s. 

Jonathan reminded me that Mike did in fact buy the Mail for a while, because his daughter Hilary had an occasional health care column in it. True to principle, however, he would pay the full price whilst only actually taking the pages in question, leaving the grateful newsagent the rest of the paper to take home at the end of the day.

Jonathan also remarked on Mike’s sense of mischief. Perhaps the best-known example is when he dressed like Margaret Thatcher on the day of her resignation in November 1990. He also loved to provoke those who are easily offended. He surely knew what he was doing when, giving a public lecture calling for the abolition of the marital rape immunity, he picked the title "But if you can't rape your wife, whom can you rape?" The publication of this lecture in Spring 1991 in the journal Family Law Quarterly almost exactly coincided with the decision of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales in R v R, which finally declared that "a rapist remains a rapist subject to the criminal law, irrespective of his relationship with his victim".

While a key improviser in legal thought and eager for new ideas he could, upon due reflection, respect, Mike could be relied upon not to be taken up by the fads that swept over academia from time to time. Supportive to a fault of his colleagues, and renowned for supervising stellar dissertations (particularly in Medical Law and Ethics), he was nevertheless a standard-bearer for academic rigour and intellectual honesty, including in the classification of degrees and in the recruitment of faculty. These were not always popular positions when the fashion favoured different metrics, though I usually found myself on his side of the argument.

Mike retired while I was away from UCL and from academia. Upon returning to Laws in 2013, I greatly missed my former neighbour, and viscerally felt the absence of those powerful reasons he had created for me to go in every day. May his memory be a blessing.’

Noam Peleg, another former student and colleague said:

‘Michael taught generations of students, and I’m proud to say that I was one of them. I came to UCL to study children’s rights with him, after been inspired by his work for many years. Meeting someone that you admire can be rather intimidating, but Michael was nothing but a generous, caring and supportive teacher and mentor from the first time we talked. This first conversation led to many more, and after the Master’s my phd in children’s rights followed, with his dedicated supervision. Over the years he showed nothing but intellectual curiosity, being open to new ideas and, unlike some other established academics, happy to be challenged and for disagreements. Michael was always up for a good chat, and we spent many lunch times or after-work drinks together. It wasn’t always children’s rights that we talked about, but also the news, history, and from time to time, a piece of juicy faculty gossip. Michael was a mensch, and I already miss him.’

Another former student, Laura Devine said:

‘Michael Freeman was my favourite lecturer at UCL laws, where I studied from 1983-1986. In fact, he was everyone’s favourite lecturer.  Entering Bentham House and meeting Professor Freeman simply changed my life. His intellect was both formidable and captivating. He was passionate about the law, society, and education. He was always questioning and taught us how to think as a lawyer. Frankly, I was intimidated by him as I was very conscious of being a 23-year-old mature student, from Scotland. Michael recognised my insecurities and so invited me to his office to explain what lay ahead in studying for an LLB at UCL. For me to sit down he had to remove and relocate numerous books, journals and research papers before reassuring me that if I studied hard, I would both graduate and flourish in the legal profession. However, he emphasised that it was important that I enjoy both the degree course and London itself with its wealth of arts and culture. Michael admitted he had done just that and as a result had sacrificed a First Class Degree, giving cricket as much attention and dedication as he did his law studies. In those twenty minutes or so I had not only entered his room but entered a world of charisma, warmth, intelligence and wit. I had walked into Michael's room with trepidation but left reassured, positive and laughing. Michael was always empathic, considerate and unfailingly witty. After Christmas in 1985, I told Michael that John, my partner, had bought me a copy of Lloyd's Jurisprudence, which Michael had edited, as a Christmas stocking filler. His riposte was, 'You must have large stockings'.  Michael was seriously smart, a natural entertainer, a brilliant lecturer and he knew it.  All his colleagues and students knew it too.

Michael taught me English Legal Systems, Family Law and Jurisprudence. I asked Michael to supervise my dissertation on the Russian legal scholar, Pashukanis. I did so because it was an area of interest to Michael and I hoped that I might gain some further insights from such a brilliant supervisor. He always gave freely of his time and knowledge and encouraged. Unfortunately, Michael was not my tutor for Family Law.  My group's tutor was the brilliant Dawn Oliver, who later became Dean of the Faculty.  Dawn entered our first tutorial and said 'Many of you will be disappointed that you don't have Michael Freeman as a tutor.  Unfortunately, I am not as entertaining, but I shall get you through the exam'. Dawn was correct on both counts.

On my graduation, Michael evolved from being my very much-admired lecturer to that of a friend. He was always a regular and welcome attendee at the annual UCL laws alumni summer party which my office hosts. This year's party, with 50 alumni, was on Tuesday 25 June, eight days before he died, which Michael and his wife Vivien enthusiastically joined. Many of Michael's former students were delighted to see him, and many more recent alumni, who had not had the privilege of being taught by Michael were keen to meet the legendary Professor Michael Freeman. 

Michael was a much respected academic throughout his amazing life and career but more importantly for so many, he was a warm, humorous man who gave so much of himself to UCL, his fellow professors and generations of students.  From a student’s perspective, Maya Angelou’s observation is a fitting epitaph ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’