With bachelor’s degrees in law and economics from the University of Queensland and a University medal under his belt, James Rigby looked further afield for his postgraduate study, choosing a Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford University as the course that best suited his interests. Recognised as one of the world’s leading master’s degrees in common law, the course title is a misnomer, says Rigby, now 28.
“It’s not in fact a bachelor’s degree and it’s not in fact civil law that you’re studying,” he says. “It’s a very Oxford thing. It’s been around for a few hundred years, which why it’s still called that, back when you couldn’t study the common law at university.”
These days, Oxford’s Bachelor of Civil Law degree is actually a master’s of law qualification, Rigby says. “It’s a one-year program, and there’s a range of courses you can take, some of which cover civil law as in the continental legal system, but most of which cover the common law system that we share.”
After graduating in 2017 from the University of Queensland, Rigby worked as a lawyer in Brisbane for Herbert Smith Freehills for a few years. Then his mind turned to post-graduate study and in early 2021 he applied for a place at Oxford, and once he was accepted, he successfully applied for a Ramsay post-graduate scholarship to fund his study. In his application he set out his proposed course of study, his successful Oxford admission, and what he hoped to achieve with the post-graduate degree.
The scholarship’s fixed sum of $85,000 covered his tuition for the year-long course, which came to 37,000 pounds or just over $66,000, and some of his living expenses. “It’s a very generous scholarship,” he says.
Within the civil law degree, he chose four options: international environmental law, international economic law, and two private law courses – commercial remedies and advanced property and trusts.
“The latter had a philosophical element in terms of the reasons behind property and what property law should reflect, rather than merely being black-letter law,” he says, referring to the term used for established case law. “The commercial remedies course was more a doctrinal black-letter law course. The environmental law course involved a lot of policy and other considerations.”
One of the 20 inaugural Ramsay Postgraduate Scholars, Rigby says the civil law degree suited him well. “I think it was particularly good for the areas I was interested in, both on the international law side and the private law courses,” he adds.
Postgraduate law courses offered by different universities around the world offer different outlooks; some are better suited for students who intend to become academics, others for students who want to broaden their horizons.
“For me, it fit to go to Oxford,” Rigby says. “It’s a beautiful place to be.” Staying in St Edmund Hall, he met people from an array of different courses, all studying at a university which has been taking in hopeful students for more than a millennium. “It’s sort of surreal,” he adds. “A friend was saying she was studying a medieval period in history that was younger than the building she was studying in. For an Australian, particularly, given our built environment reflects a more modern construction, it’s very special.”
At Oxford he joined the famed Oxford Union, and as a keen debater who had competed in world debating championships representing the University of Queensland, he watched a few of the Union’s public debates and took part in a couple of internal competitive debates.
With an interest in politics, Rigby may consider public life in the future, but his next step, he says, is about “giving back”, potentially in the field of climate change. “In my case, I’m looking at options, at international law fields I might work in.”