Obituary: Professor A. N. Allott ; Scholar Who Defined the Discipline of African Law

By Read, James S. | The Independent (London, England), June 15, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor A. N. Allott ; Scholar Who Defined the Discipline of African Law


Read, James S., The Independent (London, England)


IT IS given to a few legal scholars to survey and successfully cultivate an entirely new field, the length and breadth of a continent. Yet A. N. Allott's successive titles as Lecturer (1948) and Reader (1960) in, and Professor (1964) of, African Law at London University aptly designated the exceptional scope of his scholarship.

Antony Nicholas Allott was born in 1924 in Jump, near Barnsley, and educated at Downside School. Second World War service with the King's African Rifles provoked in him a sympathetic concern for Africa and thereby determined the future course of his life. In 1948 he took a first in Jurisprudence at New College, Oxford, and was immediately appointed to the completely novel post of Lecturer in African Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University.

The Soas Law Department, only a year old, was then a tiny group of specialists in Islamic and Hindu laws led by Professor S.G. Vesey- Fitzgerald, who was encouraged, especially by official sources at the Colonial Office, to recognise the need and scope for the study and teaching of the local customary laws which provided a vital (and convenient) element of "indirect rule" in the African dependencies.

Allott's initial task was to explore the existing foundation for scholarly work in a vast field (which, despite individual studies mainly by administrators and anthropologists, remained uncharted) and to survey the potential for future research. His first field- work research in the Gold Coast proved a formative experience, resulting in his PhD dissertation, The Akan Law of Property (published in 1954), and a lifelong concern for the laws and people of Ghana.

In the 1950s he pursued his individual research, published the first of many articles and developed systematic courses on African customary laws. He also instituted fruitful annual conferences for Colonial Service officers, which facilitated informative exchanges of ideas and experiences.

Allott fulfilled the potential of his title when he recognised the need to include the general legal systems of African territories in his research and teaching, a need which became more urgent as the 1960s - the decade of decolonisation - approached. A major issue was the future role of customary laws in the new national legal systems and in 1960 he secured a grant from the Nuffield Foundation to set up the Restatement of African Law project, to provide a basis for the systematic study and recording of customary law. As director of the project Allott recruited and inspired a remarkable international team of research officers, who all went on to distinguished careers in academic or other public service.

Allott vigorously maintained that there really was a scholarly field of such potential vastness and variety as "African Law" which he defined to include local customary laws, "received" laws of European origin, modern statute laws and the interaction between all these. He was instrumental in the adoption of his subject as options in London University LLB and LLM syllabuses and in the Bar examinations at the Inns of Court.

In 1957 Allott founded, and for many years edited, the Journal of African Law which, now in its 46th year of publication, remains unique in its field.

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