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Paterson, Ron --- "Foreword" [2016] OtaLawFS 18; Law, ethics, and medicine: essays in honour of Peter Skegg v

Last Updated: 31 May 2019


Ron Paterson, April 2016

Three geographical strands are woven through the life of Peter Skegg, whose contribution to medical law this book of essays appropriately honours. First, Oxford, the city of his birth in 1944, to which he returned as a Commonwealth Scholar in 1969, obtaining a DPhil, staying on as a law don at his beloved New College, and chairing the Faculty of Law. Peter’s love of the University of Oxford has been enduring, and although he returned to New Zealand in 1984, he has maintained close ties with Oxford and visits most years. A proud New Zealander, Peter is also a devoted Oxonian.

Second, Auckland, the city where Peter was raised and educated, met his wife Elizabeth, developed a love of birds (his first publications, on birds of the Mercury Islands, in 1963, and of the Hen and Chicken Islands, in 1964, are still cited in scientific publications), and excelled in law at the University of Auckland, as an undergraduate student and a junior law lecturer. Peter has retained a strong affection for Auckland and the Auckland Law School throughout his adult life, visiting each summer to catch up with family and friends.

Third, Dunedin, home of the world’s southernmost university, to which Peter moved in 1984 (following in the footsteps of his epidemiologist brother David) to a Chair in Law at the University of Otago. Dunedin and the University of Otago have been a happy home for Peter for over three decades, unique (in New Zealand) in offering the “town and gown” qualities of a University city like Oxford, with the bonuses of close family, lively colleagues in law, medicine and bioethics, and rich birdlife. Peter has said of Otago that he “knows no happier Law Faculty in the world”.

Peter’s interest in law and medicine began as a student at Auckland Law School. His first non-ornithological publication, in 1969, was on “Capacity of Minors to Consent to Medical Treatment”. At Oxford, his DPhil thesis on “Some Aspects of English Law Relating to Medical Transplantation” led Peter to think deeply about issues of law and medicine. Reading a US book entitled Legal Medicine in 1972, it struck Peter that his interest was the exact opposite: Medical Law. Peter’s use of the phrase in an article in 1975, and in the full title of his 1984 book, Law, Ethics and Medicine: Studies in Medical Law, was apparently a first by a UK academic.

Law, Ethics and Medicine followed more than a decade of research and publications on a wide range of medico-legal issues, including human corpses and the law of property, the legal definition of death, termination of life-support measures and the law of murder, informed consent to medical procedures, and the law relating to experimentation on children. The book is a classic example of detailed scholarship, fresh insights, and clear, elegant writing. In 1989 (following a revised edition in 1988) it was awarded the prestigious, quinquennial Swiney Prize of the Royal Society of Arts for the best published work on Jurisprudence.

Peter has continued to write on a broad canvas across the intersection of law and medicine. He combines meticulous attention to detail with an ability to see the broader ethical, professional and societal implications of often highly technical issues. He delights in the quirky details of cases,1 yet conveys a sense of kindness and sympathy for the patients and doctors caught up in human and legal dramas.

Other books have followed. Several contributors to these essays joined Peter as co-authors of the first major New Zealand text in the subject area, Medical Law in New Zealand, awarded the JF Northey Memorial Book Award for best law book published in 2006; and in its successor, Health Law in Zealand (2015). Peter conceived the idea for the original text, brought together an Auckland-Otago team, and wrote a lion’s share. As Peter’s co-editor for both texts, I witnessed his determination to produce scholarly work that would give legal practitioners, health practitioners and managers, students and the public an authoritative account of key aspects of medical and health law.

As Professor of Law at the University of Otago, Peter was able to concentrate his teaching and research on medical law, establishing a popular Law and Medicine course, teaching in the Master of Bioethics and Health Law in the Otago Bioethics Centre (established soon after his arrival in Otago), and supervising a generation of law and bioethics students researching papers, dissertations, and theses in medical law and bioethics.

By 1998, Andrew Grubb (a leading member of the next generation of English medical law scholars) was justly able to describe Peter, along with his renowned English contemporary Ian Kennedy, as one of the “fathers” of medical law.2 The metaphor can be applied well beyond the United Kingdom. His standing amongst

  1. See Peter Skegg “Criminal Prosecutions of Negligent Health Professionals: fte New Zealand Experience” (1998) 6 Med L Rev 220 at 226, n 36.
  2. Andrew Grubb “Glanville Williams: A Personal Appreciation” (1998) 6 Med L Rev 133 at 136.


his peers internationally is confirmed by frequent citations of his work and by his service on editorial boards of the leading international medical law journals.

In New Zealand Peter pioneered the emerging field and became the first port of call for students, researchers, academics, health professional leaders, and health policymakers seeking insight and expertise on medico-legal problems. He has been appointed to numerous ministerial advisory committees and expert working groups and has played an influential role in areas as diverse as prioritisation of health services, transplantation of cadaveric organs, HIV/AIDS strategy, health research and privacy, and regulation of patients’ rights.

In recognition of his “services to medical law”, Peter had the rare distinction (for an academic) of being made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM), in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2012.

A Festschrift such as this book of essays is sometimes referred to as a liber amicorum, a book of friends. That description is particularly apt for the contributions in this volume and is testament to the warmth and admiration with which Peter’s colleagues and friends regard him. We have all benefitted from his wisdom, encouragement, and generosity. We have been struck by his unfailing modesty and delighted in his sense of whimsy. I record my thanks to Peter for his friendship, advice, and unstinting support for my own work in health law and policy.

For many of us, Peter Skegg will always be the Master of Medical Law.


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