Derek Heaton obituary

Other lives: Lecturer in law who led and inspired a free legal information service in Sheffield

My father-in-law, Derek Heaton, who has died aged 89, was a law lecturer in Sheffield for most of his career and also the long-term chair of the Sheffield Free Legal Information Service, a body established in 1971 to provide free legal help to people who could not afford it.

For more than 30 years the service, with a small grant from Sheffield city council, was supported by lawyers who gave up their spare time to offer advice on any topic that clients might need help with. Thousands of clients in the city – including many people who did not qualify for legal aid – were given assistance until the service closed down because of funding cuts in 2003. Derek was chair of the service for 25 years, and a voluntary unpaid adviser throughout its existence. It would not have succeeded but for his enthusiasm and direction.

He was born in the village of Ringley, Lancashire, the son of Bessie (nee Lindley) and her husband, Bob Heaton, a canal boat builder. His parents emigrated to Canada shortly after his birth, and his first four years were spent there. But they returned during the Depression, and eventually settled in Farnworth, Lancashire. Derek left Harper Green Central school at 14 for a job as an office boy at a cotton mill in Bolton. He worked his way up to clerk and then did national service in the RAF in Plymouth from 1947 to 1949.

He returned to work in the cotton mills and became a company branch secretary in 1955 before deciding, in 1960, to train as a lecturer. After six months as a schoolteacher, in 1961 he joined the Sheffield College of Technology – which subsequently became Sheffield City Polytechnic – as a lecturer in business studies.

Derek’s interest in law led him to study that subject through distance learning with the University of London. He obtained a degree in law in the early 1970s and switched to lecturing on consumer and commercial law at the polytechnic. While doing his distance learning he became the organiser and chair of the Sheffield Free Legal Information Service.

Over the years he also provided consumer advice on local radio, wrote textbooks on consumer law, and in his spare time was a boy scout and church youth leader, as well as a lay preacher. He retired from the polytechnic as a senior lecturer in 1989.

Derek is survived by his wife, Pam (nee Brawn), whom he married in 1961, by their daughter, Deborah, and grandchildren, triplets Cecily, Benedict and Daisy. His son, Jonathan, died in a road accident aged 24.

Andy Eaton

The GuardianTramp

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