William David Prosser was widely regarded as one of the most intellectually outstanding minds in the Scottish legal profession – of his or any other generation. After gaining a double first in classics at Corpus Christi College,Oxford, he read law at the University of Edinburgh. He was admitted to the faculty of Advocates in 1962 and took silk in 1974. The Faculty of Advocates elected him its Vice-Dean in 1979 and in 1983 he was elected Dean. In 1986 he became a judge of the Court of Session, an office he discharged with distinction until he retired in 2001.
These facts are mentioned in all his obituaries, which refer to his great intellect, his mastery of the law, his many interests in the arts and the very significant contribution to Scottish public life.
However, this dry recital of his many achievements comes nowhere near to describing the warm, witty and gracious man known to members of the Franco British Lawyers Society.
As a member from early days, Willie was deeply involved in promoting and developing the Society and in making sure that the separate status of Scots Law was acknowledged, not simply subsumed into something mysteriously called “British Law”. In 1994 the Society organised an event based around two mock trials on one set of facts, one conducted according to Scots Law, and one according to French law. Willie was the judge in the Scots procedure. Myriam Ezratty, then Premier Président of the Cour D’Appel in Paris, was judge in the French trial. She and Willie shared extremely sharp minds and had in common a love of the arts, so it is not surprising that a close and enduring friendship sprang up between them. Willie succeeded her as President of the Society in 1999.
At Society conferences someone was usually asked to act as a Rapporteur for the colloque. It was hard work, since it meant having to concentrate all day, listen carefully to all the contributions, both in French and in English, and then sum up. Because Willie was so consummately good at this, urbanely and wittily drawing the threads together, and injecting his own observations laced with classical allusions, he was asked to perform this task more often than anyone else. Many Society members have recalled the excellence of these syntheses, usually delivered in French, describing them as “Magisterial tours de force”. Mike Butcher recalls saying that it was time to find someone else to perform this task, since it was not fair that Willie should always carry this burden, only for Willie to reply, smiling, “That’s what you said last year,Mike. And the year before.”
For many years, Willie was a member and Trustee of the Franco British Council. His strong belief that Franco-British understanding could best be advanced through common interests in the arts and Human Rights was deeply enriching for the council, and very influential on its activities. He was a highly creative treasurer at a demanding time for the Council, making sure that the work of staff was recognized despite challenging financial constraints. In 2005 he initiated a major conference on the subject of the State and Religion, looking at areas where our two countries met or where they diverged, with a view to identifying common principles. It was an important conference at the time, and the subject matter remains highly topical today, because, as he said in his introduction to the conference, “Events throughout the world and in our two countries, give a topicality and perhaps urgency, to discussion of the interplay between political entities and religious groups or individuals.”
Willie was also a member of the Franco British Judicial Co-operation Committee, under whose auspices he spent several weeks at the Conseil D’État. It was during this extended stay in Paris that the decision was made to purchase a pied à terre there, or, rather, as he described it, a pied au ciel.
While Willie thoroughly enjoyed the flat in Paris for the access it gave him to cultural life there, he also loved being in Paris itself and did not limit himself to the tourist or the bourgeois side of the city. Many friends can testify to his thorough knowledge of Pigalle jazz bars. He had a plan, alas uncompleted, to walk all the canal footpaths. He recounted a walk through Belleville, once a working class area and now largely lived in by the immigrant population. During his walk he engaged in conversation with some of the immigrants and enjoyed a joke with them. He loved walking all over Paris.
Many friends have commented on his interest in French cultural life; one records with astonishment and admiration his discovery that Willie had read Marcel Proust’s “À la recherce du temps perdu”, in French, a task, apparently, which even few French people accomplish.
This interest in French culture was rewarded with an honour from the French government in the form of a medal of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an order of merit recognising those who have made a significant contribution to the arts or literature in France, or to the propagation of these. The three grades of the order -Commandeur, Officier and Chevalier – reflect its origins in the chivalric order of Saint-Michel.
When the prospect of an award was first mooted, the notification was that he would be made a Chevalier. Willie was very amused and delighted by this: he thought that “the Chevalier Prosser” had a very good ring to it indeed. However, when the nomination was referred to the powers that be, they were horrified. It was impossible that such a distinguished man should be given the title of mere Chevalier, and he was instantly upgraded to the rank of Officier.
Unless they already hold high rank in the Légion d’Honneur, French citizens must wait a minimum of five years before they are eligible to be upgraded from Chevalierto Officier, and they must in the meantime have displayed meritorious deeds additional to those which originally made them a Chevalier. Willie achieved it before they had even given him the medal!
France was not alone in his affection: Italy, too, was a country with which he felt great affinity. He loved Italy, and all things Italian, so he gladly agreed to participate in “British Law Week” in Milan, run by the British Council. He again presided over a mock trial, this time performed in Italian. He also delivered a talk, in Italian, entitled “Scots Law: a blend for export” and indeed gave various tv or press interviews, all in Italian. As with the FBLS, the effect of Willie’s leadership of the Scottish delegation was very much to make sure that the Scots presence was felt. His enjoyment of the week was greatly enhanced by the fact that his son, David, then studying in Italy, was able to attend several of the events.
Closer to home, Willie was an ardent supporter of the arts. He was chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. He was an honorary fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, having had a lifelong interest in architecture. He served on the board of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and was instrumental in helping that body obtain university status. His contribution to public life in Scotland was immense.
Since his death on 22 March 2015, many Franco-British contacts have presented their condolences. They all talk about what great company he was; what fun he was; one noted that he always seemed genuinely interested in the person to whom he was talking and that is a quality which is hardly commonplace. They all refer to his great warmth, his humanity, his kindness, his humour and his generosity.
Dr Anne Corbett, who was vice chair of the Franco British Council when Willie was a trustee, remarked that his effectiveness in that role owed much to his wonderful way with words, spiced with humour, commenting that he showed wisdom without pomposity. She said “Willie kept painting the sky blue, believing it is always possible for people in positions of public responsibility to do better by their fellow citizens.”
Advocates who started practice in the era when he was Dean referred to him by the nickname “Renaissance Man”. How he would have laughed, but how well he lived up to it!
Despite illness, last November he was able to celebrate his 80th birthday in style, along with the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Vanessa. The Society presents its deepest sympathy to Vanessa, to his daughters Jo and Sarah, and sons David and Michael.
The society, and Scottish public life, is much diminished by his passing.
Nous savons qu’il restera bien vivant dans nos pensées.