On Research Leave

In a recent post, I flagged that I was about to begin a period of research leave.

That is not the most important thing that is going on in the world right now. Neither is this post the most important thing you will read today. What this post is for is to set out a bit about my own plans and air some of the things I want to look into, whilst setting up something for me to reflect on in due course. I hope it is not too Malcolm-centric for readers, but hey, it’s my blog and all that.

This is my first such sabbatical from teaching and administrative roles since I began my full-time academic career in 2011. I am looking forward to it. I am also a bit apprehensive, in that I need to prove to myself that I can still do some hardcore research. I also need to repay the faith others have shown in me by producing some solid output.

That faith is manifested in at least two ways.

First, a variety of my colleagues have picked up some of my workload. I have done this for colleagues in previous years, for sabbatical cover and also for staff absence for not-so-programmed reasons. I suppose this is part of the academic circle of life, but I am no less appreciative of it. (In fact, I should acknowledge colleagues have also done this for me when I was on medical leave, and bizarrely that period of “sabbatical” was relatively productive for me in terms of published output, at least when I was not distracted by treatment: maybe I do not need to be worried about my capacity to research and publish after all.)

Second, I am fortunate and very grateful to have received some funding in the form of a  Research Incentive Grant from The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.

In a spirit of open access and public engagement, I would be happy to share some of the details of my application if anyone is interested, but I do not want to jump the gun and divulge anything in public before it is appropriate to do so. It might be the case that a link to successful grants or excerpts thereof will be made available on the Carnegie website: if and when that happens I will link to it here.

What I will say is that the scheme allowed applications for up to £7,500 and I did not apply for the full amount.

I applied for funding to look into (yup, you guessed it) land reform. In addition to ongoing general analysis of land reform and community empowerment legislation, I wish to look specifically at abandonment of property, which I think sits nicely at the nexus of private property rights and the public good. The word “abandonment” appears in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, as a potential trigger for community acquisition of land. Suitably formed community bodies will soon be able to force a sale when land is “wholly or mainly abandoned or neglected” (and, for that matter, when land has been environmentally mismanaged). The word “abandoned” is not defined in the legislation. The concept and the right (or wrong) of abandonment is already an aspect of Scots property law though, in that an owner of a thing can (seek to) walk away from that thing. That is not the full story though: recent case law relating to sites where coal has been extracted is to the effect that it is not possible to simply disclaim any involvement with such land.

I think those two treatments of abandonment are worth further study. Abandoment also crops up (pun intended) in other areas of law, such as crofting. There are duties of a crofter (whether as a crofting tenant or as an owner-occupier crofter) relating to the use of land and a proximate residency requirement which have certain commonalities, I think, with a wider public goal of not allowing land to lie fallow. There are other areas I plan to look into, and there may be others I have not considered: do please offer a comment if you have any thoughts.

So how will my grant money be applied? The better part of the grant itself is being applied to fund some research assistance at the University of Aberdeen. Some money is earmarked for materials for our law library. The remainder is being applied for a five-week trip to South Africa, specifically Stellenbosch University.

Why South Africa, and why Stellenbosch? On the former, South Africa has a similar “mixed” legal system to Scotland and has been used as a comparator for aspects of private law before. It also has a contemporary programme of land reform, albeit with a very different social, economic and historical background. I have engaged in some desk-based research about this before. I hope an actual trip will add further insight. As for Stellenbosch, there are some existing links (in terms of staff relationships) between that university and the University of Aberdeen, which is handy. Moreover, there is real expertise in property law and land reform there: this monograph written by a Stellenbosch professor being printed evidence of that. All going well, I will be there for some of April and May. I plan to blog about the trip in due course, so I will leave the analysis of that aspect of my research leave at that for now.

Of course, a sabbatical does not completely remove someone from circulation. I will still be around and some tasks still need to be attended to. Plus, I need to try to juggle the need stay active as a commentator without becoming a complete hermit, but also giving myself enough time to engage with research properly. All of this has been evident in what I have been up to during my research leave to date. My January was essentially filled by tidying up my teaching and admin duties, being involved in our internal postgraduate Client Consultation Competition then the equivalent Scottish Client Consultation Competition (which, incidentally, Aberdeen won this year – yay!), meeting a publishing deadline to deal with editor and peer-reviewer comments on a chapter I submitted to an edited collection on community property rights, and one or two other miscelleneous things like this outreach event. February has involved further bitty tasks, and the completion of a book review (more on that if and when I hear from the publisher). Hopefully I can fully engage with my “new” research soon, once I have finally burnt everything that was in my back-burner, but there are still some other things I remain involved with, such as the Scottish University Law Clinic Network and its conference on 7 June, ongoing involvement with Aberdeen Law Project, and a few land reform type events. In relation to the latter, if you can be in Aberdeen on Friday 26 May, the plan is for me to be hosting a discussion with the Chair of the new Scottish Land Commission as part of the University of Aberdeen’s May Festival.

That is enough for now, I think.

Now, time to roll up my sleeves and do some research and non-bloggy writing…

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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