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Legal Leaders: John Carter's love of contracts in context

Legal Leaders: John Carter's love of contracts in context

For three decades, Professor John Carter has maintained a tenacious passion for contract law. He tells Angela Priestley why he believes everyone should have a soft spot for the topic.

For three decades, Professor John Carter has maintained a tenacious passion for contract law. He tells Angela Priestley why he believes everyone should have a soft spot for the topic.

Professor John Carter, who will be working with the Sabah Law Association to encourage greater understanding of contract law in Malaysia
Put a call through to Professor John Carter in his office and there's a good chance he'll have to turn the music down.

The self-confessed hippy and Beatles' obsessive readily admits that anyone who sees him in person can automatically assume he was a "child of the sixties" - and his music tastes reflect the look.

But subscribing to the free-love philosophies perpetuated by the likes of Lennon and McCartney only extends so far for Carter.

His other love is much more structured and constrained. And, aside from declaring his undivided attention for his wife over the decades, it's an affair that's lasted thirty years through numerous ups and own.

Carter's love of contract law has led him to become Australia's pre-eminent expert in the area: a writer, thinker, teacher and business consultant on the ins and outs of binding agreements.

Since graduating with a PHD in breach of contract from Cambridge University in 1981, Carter has dedicated his professional life to demystifying contract law to students, lawyers, businesspeople and the general public.

For some, a love of contract law might be difficult to comprehend. But Carter sees no reason not to get so deeply involved. "People ask me, why? You've written book after book - what keeps you going? But really it's about writing and explaining something for different audiences. It's a real challenge," he says.

Discovering contracts

Carter never wanted to be a lawyer. The son of a printer and brother of three siblings - a printing apprentice, hairdresser and veterinarian - Carter had few connections to the legal profession when he decided to study law at the University of Sydney.

"I didn't have any imagination," he says. "I really didn't know what to expect when I studied law so I took a bit of an insurance policy at the time - by studying an Arts degree too."

It was during his last year of law school that Carter penned an article on breach of contract that first spurred his interest in contract law. After a year spent as an associate to Justice Franki of the Federal Court, followed by the completion of a Doctor of Philosophy in 1981, he was well and truly hooked.

"Contract is such a large and relevant subject that there's always something new, and there's always something relevant at so many levels," says Carter.

"When we go shopping we're entering into different contracts. Then there are the big transactions, developments, joint ventures and so on. It [contract law] has got an enormous range of context and applications."

The thrill for Carter is in helping people understand contracts. "From day one, I appreciated the need to present things in a way that was relevant and meaningful," says Carter.

It's a necessary and important pursuit. As Carter notes, although the Australian Government might like to believe that everybody owns a copy of Australian Consumer Law and regularly keep track of the ACCC's information about consumer rights, that is not reality, nor will it ever be.

"A lot more people ought to be understanding contracts," says Carter. "Contracts are all around us. You can't do anything - drive a car, buy groceries, go to a restaurant - without encountering contracts. But that doesn't mean everybody needs to know about contract law."

Instead, those who understand contract law have a responsibility to present it to others in such a way that the mystery surrounding the agreements can be unlocked.

"Contracts are all around us. You can't do anything - drive a car, buy groceries, go to a restaurant - without encountering contracts. But that doesn't mean everybody needs to know about contract law."

It was a point Carter, in his capacity as a consultant with Freehills, made in a submission to the Government in relation to the new Australian Consumer Law. "We made the point that consumers are far better served if they don't need to know the law. It's very hard for ordinary individuals to be familiar with statutes that run for 50 or 60 pages."

Unfortunately, not all students of contract law experience such excitement for the topic and Carter readily concedes that teaching contracts can be a challenge.

"The biggest challenge is always to get people enthusiastic - to make people understand and to be able to present things to them that infuses them with enthusiasm for the subject," says Carter.

"To me, that's all about knowing your audience and being able to teach differently to people depending on whether or not they are lawyers in practice, or people doing it in first year as part of a law degree or to people in business who want to know about the law."

With thirty years to draw on, Carter believes students are finding it harder than ever to learn contract law, despite the proliferation of materials available to students that were simply non-existent in the 1980s.

These days, says Carter, students just don't have the time - or perhaps the patience - to devote to a particular subject. While students can build their knowledge capacity on the subject from numerous text books and the internet, Carter believes a certain philosophical shift at universities is now seeing students spoon-fed information they would have sought themselves in the past.

For the record

Carter's thirty years at the coalface of contract law has seen him publish three major works in the field, establish the Journal of Contract Law Journal, serve as a part-time commissioner to the Law Reform Commission of NSW, organise yearly contract law conferences with colleagues across the globe and achieve a personal chair in the field of Commercial Law at the University of Sydney in 1995. Next month, he will release Carter's Breach of Contract (published by LexisNexis, also publisher of Lawyers Weekly).

But aside from these remarkable achievements, there's one particular incident that has drawn Carter into the realm of mass media attention.

In 2005, Carter, accused then Justice Marcus Einfeld of plagiarism.

The claims of plagiarism joined a long list of various accusations against the judge which, according to some journalists at the time, amounted to a character reference of Enfield that was plagued with dishonesty.

Einfeld has since served prison time for knowingly making a false statement under oath after attempting to get out of a $77 speeding fine.

But while Carter bemoans any form of plagiarism, especially in the legal field, he does believe the attention his accusations received spun a little out of control.

"To be honest, at the time, the name of the judge never actually registered to me," says Carter. "It was a storm in a teacup as far as I was concerned, that wouldn't have gotten anywhere if the other incidents didn't come up."

Like his love of The Beatles, Carter concedes that his love for contracts has its limits. Really, it's his wife who really holds his heart. "She transcends everything. It's great to be able to have a relationship where you can do all these various things that I have to do and get support on them all the time. I couldn't be without her."

And outside the limits of the page and strict definitions of particular words within the confines of contracts, Carter ensures that his time in the office is always accompanied by a soundtrack of some sort, and that his working days remain as unpredictable as possible.


Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

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Legal Leaders: John Carter's love of contracts in context
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