Professor Jonathan Fitchen passed away on Friday 22nd January following a brief period of illness. Jon joined the School of Law in 2008. Over the years, he contributed to teaching across an exceptionally wide range of subjects, and he did so exceptionally well. But he was happiest when teaching private international law.
Jon has been the Director of the School of Law’s Centre for Private International Law since 2018, but his mentorship of other members of the Centre started long before. We all met Jon early in our careers and benefited greatly from his sage advice, which he offered generously – even if apologetically for fear that it might be mistaken for condescension. His advice helped us to shape our careers, to balance our work and private space, and to refine the finer detail of our work. His support and encouragement were invaluable in helping colleagues to understand their potential, and to work towards its fulfilment.
Jon didn’t seek actively to leave a personal imprint on the Centre for Private International Law. That was not his way. He sought instead to share leadership, drawing on and fostering the strengths of a group of scholars who would work independently and together for shared love of our discipline. His true mark on the Centre, one which we will cherish as his legacy to us, is of camaraderie, egalitarianism, and above all a shared dedication to scholarship.
But for all Jon’s efforts to foster a sense of equality, it is impossible fully to democratise wisdom, knowledge and experience. Jon shared generously of his ample resources, but he remained – remains – a mentor to us all. He will be missed.
Jonathan was the sort of scholar who recognised that the law that really matters is to be found in its finer detail and practical operation. This is not to say that he was not interested in theory or principle. He was; but he understood that often the success or otherwise of policy goals is to be found in civil procedure; in the extent to which a document signed by a notary in Paris has legal effects in Prague; in the extent to which consumers can bring collective actions to contest corporate collusion.
Much of Jon’s published work dealt with issues which other scholars found daunting. His recent monograph (The Private International Law of Authentic Instruments (Hart/Bloomsbury 2020)) is the only English language book on the private international law of notarial authentic instruments. Prof Dr Mathias Lehmann, who met Jon while he was researching German law at the University of Bonn’s library, observed that Jon’s publications “were of the most exact kind and extremely helpful in the complex areas he worked in.” That Jon, a lawyer from a common law jurisdiction, achieved such high standards in work which concerned “foreign” legal concepts is truly exceptional. His work, particularly his most recent book, will be a lasting and fitting legacy to scholars, students and practitioners around the world.
In the days since Jon’s passing, tributes to his scholarship and character have come from across the private international law world. From Professor Xandra Kramer in the Netherlands to Professor Giesela Ruhl in Germany to Professor Thalia Kruger in Belgium to Professor Carmen Otero García-Castrillón in Spain; all noted his kindness, his wit, his scholarly brilliance. As Professor Andrew Dickinson at the University of Oxford put it, Jon was “a kind, thoughtful colleague and the master of his brief.”
Alex Layton QC summed it up beautifully too: “Jonathan was a delightful man whose charming under-stated manner concealed a generous intelligence and deep knowledge. A dreadful untimely loss for his family, for the private international law world and for all whose path he crossed.”
We’re not surprised by the extent of the respect and affection which Jon commanded in our field. But we rather think he might have been. Jon was a very modest man who wore his talents and high intelligence uncomfortably. That was part of his charm. Beneath his unassuming demeanour Jon was an exceptional scholar, an exemplary mentor and a very valued friend. We will miss him immensely, but are thankful for the wisdom, knowledge and laughs he gave us over the years in which he was with us.
The Centre for Private International Law