Pollock, Frederick

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Pollock, Frederick

As a legal scholar and historian, Sir Frederick Pollock was a leading figure in the modernization of English legal studies in the nineteenth century. Born in London on December 10, 1845, Pollock was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, admitted to the bar in 1871, and soon rose to eminence in his field as an author of groundbreaking histories and textbooks. He taught law in his native England and lectured briefly in the United States in 1903 and 1912. Besides his public contributions to legal scholarship, Pollock is remembered for his decades-long private correspondence with U.S. Supreme Court justice oliver wendell holmes jr., which was published posthumously.

Beginning in the 1870s, Pollock wrote a series of books that marked a turning point in English legal scholarship. His approach was different from that of his predecessors, who had built their work on specific applications of the law. Pollock emphasized the law's underlying principles. Written in a direct, clear style, works such as Principles of Contract at Law and in Equity (1876) and a companion work The Law of Torts (1887) became the standard legal texts for many years; more importantly, they served as models for other textbooks and thus helped to modernize English Legal Education.

Pollock possessed enormous talent and energy for scholarly work. In 1883 he began teaching at Oxford University as a professor of Jurisprudence. That same year he published his classic work, The Land Laws, and two years later he became the first editor of the Law Quarterly Review. Over the next three decades, he published a number of books, including Spinoza, His Life and Philosophy (1880); Possession in the Common Law (with Robert S. Wright) (1888); A First Book of Jurisprudence (1896); The Expansion of the Common Law (1904); The Genius of the Common Law (1912) and The League of Nations (1920). Many of his books were reprinted several times, and his History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I (with frederic w. maitland) (1895; rev. ed. 1898) is still often cited by legal scholars.

Contemporary law interested Pollock as much as Legal History, and he played an important role in reforming the English legal system. He immersed himself in public service, variously holding positions as a member of the Privy Council, judge of the Admiralty Court of the Cinque Ports, King's Counsel, and chairman of the Royal Commission on the Public Records. In 1895 he was appointed editor of the Law Reports, charged with overseeing the production of reports on judicial opinions, and remained in that position for forty years. Such was his stature in the legal profession that even judges deferred to him.

"[The courts] may supplement and enlarge the law as they find it, or rather they must do so from time to time, as the novelty of questions coming before them may require; but they must not reverse what has been settled."
—Frederick Pollock

Among Pollock's many admirers was his friend, Justice Holmes. The British law professor and the U.S. Supreme Court justice carried on a correspondence for sixty years. The letters contain discussions of the legal issues of the day, descriptions of their lives, and, at least by Holmes, mischievous portraits of their contemporaries. Each man admired the other's national legal system and his thinking: Pollock apparently borrowed ideas from Holmes for the first clear formulation of the doctrine of relative title—a concept related to ownership—in the 1880s. The correspondence was published as The Holmes-Pollock Letters, 1874–1932 (1961). Pollock died in London on January 18, 1937.

Further readings

Gordley, James, and Ugo Mattei. 1996. "Protecting Possession." American Journal of Comparative Law 44 (spring).

Howe, Mark De Wolfe, ed. 1994. Holmes-Pollock Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock, 1874–1932. Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman.

Hudson, John, ed. 1996. The History of English Law: Centenary Essays on 'Pollock and Maitland.' New York: Published for the British Academy by Oxford Univ. Press.

Vandevelde, Kenneth J. 1991. "The Modern Prima Facie Tort Doctrine." Kentucky Law Journal 79 (spring).

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