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National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Legal Notes

An Important Biography of Sir Owen Dixon

The history of the High Court of Australia has disclosed three judges of the greatest distinction: Sir Owen Dixon, Sir Wilfred Fullagar and Sir Harry Gibbs. It is unfortunate that until the publication of Professor Philip Ayres’ work here reviewed no biography of Dixon had been produced.

Professor Ayres is the head of the English Department of Monash University, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, London, and of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He has a reputation for careful scholarship, and this reputation is borne out by his recently-released biography Owen Dixon.

Dixon has been widely regarded as the greatest judge of his generation in the English-speaking world, a view joined in by such other eminent jurists as Lord Simonds of the House of Lords and Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was also referred to by Sir Robert Menzies as the greatest intellect that Australia had produced.

Nonetheless Dixon's personality and character have proved elusive. Dixon was the product of a Victorian liberal education. He was widely read in literature and history and was especially attracted to Greek and Roman classics. He had definite views on questions of conduct, and set high standards both for himself and for others. His judgments in the High Court were uncompromising. They had an intellectual basis, and made no concessions to those who would have wished them to be more in a popular style and less exact. On a logical and legal basis they were difficult to fault, since Dixon's understanding of legal theory and memory for the precedents and decisions of the courts were remarkable and perhaps unparalleled. The fact that he did not always set out all the authorities for his propositions did not obscure the fact that when he regarded it as necessary he would amass references in a full and convincing manner, showing an unrivalled knowledge of the law.

Dixon was faithful to the best traditions of the common law. He regarded it as his duty to apply the law accurately and to give effect to parliament's intentions as revealed in the statutes that he was required to construe. He was not possessed of the egotism of activist judges, who have seen themselves as superior to the legal order and have wished to over-ride statutes and case-law so as to achieve their own personal aims, and he would have had little regard for the recent activist efforts of Justices Brennan, Mason and Deane, amongst others, who have advanced their personal social or political opinions, or of Justice Kirby, who has in the view of some observers advanced himself inappropriately as a homosexual activist.

Dixon referred to the technique of the common law as "legalism". By this he meant that judges should apply the law accurately in accordance with the statutes of parliament and the body of prior decisions of the courts.

In Owen Dixon Ayres follows Dixon’s life back from his early years in Hawthorn, Melbourne, and traces not only his professional life as a barrister and as a judge, but also his appointment as a minister to Washington and his mediation (under United Nations appointment) between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in 1950. For political reasons his Kashmir mediation was not able to achieve an agreement by the parties, but the solutions that he proposed have been regarded as very appropriate and would doubtless have been accepted if the protagonists had acted more rationally than was the case.

Owen Dixon is of moderate length, and with notes and index amounts to four hundred pages. It is attractively printed, with high quality materials and a clean and careful setting, and with a range of photographs from different times during Dixon's life.

The text is likewise careful and attractive in style, and written with sensitivity and balance.

Owen Dixon introduces a completely new high level of Australian legal biography. Previous legal biographies have not only been of a lower standard, but have not been of professional quality. For example, the Marr biography of Sir Garfield Barwick was written by an author whose social and political views were completely different from those of his subject, and the biography appeared to be designed to demean Barwick. Conversely, the biography of Sir Isaac Isaacs by Zelman Cowen suffered from the opposite fault.

It may be hoped that Professor Ayres’ professionalism and punctiliousness will be a model for future legal biographies, and that Owen Dixon will be widely read as a worthy account of one of the greatest Australians.1

I.C.F. Spry

1. Owen Dixon is published by Melbourne University Press, ISBN 0522850456.

National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003