Hu­man­ist ideals guided re­formist judge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robert Murray

APUBLIC fig­ure who leaves 10,000 let­ters cov­er­ing more than 50 years is a bi­og­ra­pher’s dream. This trea­sure trove is the main source for this brisk bi­og­ra­phy of J. V. ( Jack) Barry, em­i­nent Melbourne bar­ris­ter of the 1930s and ’ 40s, judge of the Supreme Court of Vic­to­ria from 1947 un­til he died in 1969, aged 66, and man about the le­gal and po­lit­i­cal worlds.

In ad­di­tion to his le­gal ca­reer, Barry was ac­tive in le­gal re­form causes. He pro­moted the dis­ci­pline of crim­i­nol­ogy, was a founder of the Coun­cil for Civil Lib­er­ties in 1935, op­posed the death penalty and wrote prodi­giously on le­gal his­tory and af­fairs of the law gen­er­ally.

His last work, com­pleted while he was dy­ing, was the en­try on Ned Kelly for the Aus­tralian Dic­tionary of Bi­og­ra­phy.

Al­though he failed to se­cure pre­s­e­lec­tion for a winnable seat, he was a mem­ber of the Vic­to­rian ALP ex­ec­u­tive for sev­eral years be­fore join­ing the bench. But, dis­lik­ing the harsh fac­tional stances in the La­bor Party, he de­cided he wasn’t meant for elec­toral pol­i­tics.

Barry’s pub­lic stand­ing did not de­ter ASIO from keep­ing a file on him, though it does not seem to have done him any harm.

The intelligence dossier be­gins in World War II with him chair­ing meet­ings of an Aus­tralia- China Co- op­er­a­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, which the hos­tile Chi­nese con­sul claimed was a ‘‘ com­mu­nist front’’.

This and ac­tiv­ity in the Aus­tralian- Soviet Friend­ship As­so­ci­a­tion were prob­a­bly meant as a con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort.

On the ev­i­dence here, how­ever, there is noth­ing to in­di­cate that Barry’s pol­i­tics were other than main­stream ALP, be­com­ing more con­ser­va­tive and pes­simistic as he got older. His in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­ests were chiefly po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy.

His friend­ships and as­so­ci­a­tions ranged widely, ex­tend­ing from Marx­ist his­to­rian Brian Fitz­patrick to Garfield Bar­wick ( even­tu­ally Lib­eral MP and chief jus­tice of the High Court). The book should be a feast of nos­tal­gia for lawyers par­tic­u­larly, with names such as Melbourne bar­ris­ter Eu­gene Gor­man and so­lic­i­tor Luke Mur­phy, who were his men­tors; the Gal­bally brothers; Mau­rice Black­burn and William Slater, founders of two of to­day’s big­gest La­bor law firms.

Zel­man Cowen, later gov­er­nor- gen­eral; Vic­to­rian at­tor­ney- gen­eral Arthur Ry­lah; Pen­tridge prison chap­lain Jack Bros­nan; politi­cians H. V. Evatt, Arthur Cal­well and Pat Ken­nelly; and Owen Dixon and John Latham of the High Court were other friends or close as­so­ciates. Robert Men­zies, half a gen­er­a­tion older, the young Barry re­garded as legally su­per­fi­cial, ex­ces­sively in­clined to settle cases rather than risk de­feat.

le­gal rather

Reared as a Catholic, Barry em­braced ag­nos­ti­cism, though he some­times felt twinges of doubt. He once joked that he gave up thoughts of re­turn­ing to the church af­ter pope Paul XI gave an au­di­ence to Vic­to­rian pre­mier Henry Bolte, not long af­ter the hang­ing of Ron­ald Ryan.

Barry ac­knowl­edged that he of­ten found life on the bench te­dious. He said he was ‘‘ mum­mi­fied at 43’’ by be­com­ing a judge, but he looked to the so­cial ef­fect of the law and op­por­tu­ni­ties for use­ful in­no­va­tion. He spe­cialised in di­vorce, to which he tried to bring a hu­mane, though ‘‘ pro- wo­man’’, touch and ad­vised on the 1950s di­vorce law re­form plans.

Fin­nane in­ter­viewed friends, as­so­ciates and fam­ily to sup­ple­ment the let­ters, but oc­ca­sion­ally con­text could have been im­proved by less reliance on the cor­re­spon­dence trove. Robert Murray’s latest book is 150 Years of Spring Street: Vic­to­rian Gov­ern­ment: 1850s to 21st Cen­tury.

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