New job, new challenge, New Zealand

August 13, 1999

In the fourth of a series on opportunities abroad, law professor Stephen Todd explains why New Zealand offers the kind of challenges, academic and environmental, that he could never hope to find in the UK. Julia Hinde, right, offers a guide to landing a job

I first visited New Zealand in 1980 when I spent a year at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch as a visiting lecturer in law. The opportunity had arisen through contacts and I was very interested to see what life was like in this faraway place. It was a busy and enjoyable time, both in taking new courses and later in travelling around the country with my wife and three daughters (a fourth arrived a little later).

New Zealand is a beautiful and largely unspoiled country and in various ways is quite unlike the United Kingdom. For a start it is very empty. Its total area is larger than the UK and the population is just 3.5 million. The South Island, where Christchurch is, is bigger than England, but has just 800,000 people. It is physically very different, with volcanoes and thermal areas in the north and mountain ranges in the south. Much of the landscape is harsh and sometimes quite forbidding. The cosiness of the English countryside is entirely absent.

After returning to the University of Sheffield I was offered a permanent job at Canterbury - and also a promotion. It was not an easy decision, particularly for family reasons, but in the end I decided to accept. This was not because I was disillusioned with university life in England, although it was in fact a time of general gloom and cutbacks. Rather, it seemed to me that the move offered both an academic challenge and the opportunity to live in an environment that we had found very congenial.

Having arrived in 1982, we have been here for 17 years. Time seems to rush past ever faster. Canterbury is an academically strong university and most departments are well regarded both in New Zealand and overseas. It is seen as a "conservative" institution in the best sense of that word. Certainly I found the law department fitted the mould. Its reputation is excellent throughout the legal profession.

In the early 1980s, legal research and writing in New Zealand was relatively undeveloped. Students tended to use English or Australian textbooks and not a great deal had been achieved in terms of indigenous material. Much of the law in common law countries - those where the laws are founded on English law - is quite similar, so using overseas texts was perfectly feasible. However, the tendency in the later part of this century has been towards greater divergence, creating a need for local texts.

Some of my colleagues at Canterbury were engaged in charting these developments and I was keen to make a contribution. There was much virgin ground, even in core subjects, whereas in England these had been well worked over already. One of my fields is the law of torts. This is the body of law that determines whether a person is liable in a civil action for harm of some kind inflicted on someone else. It is a fascinating subject with never-ending human interest. As might be imagined, torts is a compulsory part of all law degrees, but there was no New Zealand textbook.

Local developments were also crying out for attention. Since the 1980s there has been a series of decisions in the Court of Appeal about, for example, negligent statements, defective property and liability of public bodies.

The opportunity could not be missed, and I edited and wrote with others a text, now in its second edition, aimed at filling this gap. The law of contract, another core subject, needed similar treatment. The law in New Zealand has moved sharply away from English law, in particular by the enactment of a series of statutes replacing the common law. I and two colleagues took over the editorship of a New Zealand version of an English text and recently we produced a stand-alone successor. Our aim was to emphasise and develop the distinctive features of much of the law of contract in New Zealand and produce a book of truly indigenous character.

The working environment at Canterbury is very good. We have an impressive new building (as have other departments) with a large and well-supplied library. Prudent financial management and keeping administration to a minimum have served Canterbury well, although nowadays the financial situation perhaps is a little less rosy.

Not unusually, there are threats abroad. One is the notion of imposing an annual charge on the capital value of the university's assets (which would penalise Canterbury's enviable financial record). As it is not clear that the government owns the university, maybe this assault can be repelled. Another, presently unclear, proposal is to create a central contestable research fund to which universities and other public bodies would bid. This, possibly familiar, idea could lead to a division between research and teaching institutions.

Some of the disadvantages of living in the antipodes have also been diminishing. To resort to a cliche, the world is getting smaller. Communication of ideas has been revolutionised by the advent of email and the internet. International air travel is cheaper and easier than ever. I find I can attend international conferences reasonably regularly. Generous leave provision allows for time to be spent at other universities.

Having also worked in Western Australia, I can say that the university environment at Canterbury and in all these places is very similar. The students are very alike as well. With few exceptions they are able, friendly and interested. New Zealand is still a long way away, but it is getting nearer.

Stephen Todd is a professor of law at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

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