Humanist ideals guided reformist judge
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.
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.