Sir Harry Gibbs and Papua New Guinea

By Douglas, James | University of Queensland Law Journal, June 2019 | Go to article overview

Sir Harry Gibbs and Papua New Guinea


Douglas, James, University of Queensland Law Journal


I INTRODUCTION

Sir Harry Gibbs' role in our legal pantheon is well established. (1) Members of the profession who did not know him personally will be aware of his biographical details from obituaries and entries, for example in The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia. (2) There are also illuminating papers published about him, particularly those prepared by two of his former associates, the Hon Glen Williams and David Jackson QC, in Queensland Judges on the High Court, published by the Queensland Supreme Court Library. (3) David Jackson also delivered an oration published in the University of Queensland Law Journal on 'Sir Harry Gibbs and the Constitution'. (4) There is a popular biography, Without Fear or Favour, written by Joan Priest in 1995. (5) Many of Sir Harry's speeches are accessible through the Queensland Supreme Court Library's website, and there is a permanent exhibition on the rule of law, dedicated to his life and legacy, in the Sir Harry Gibbs Legal Heritage Centre on the ground floor of the Supreme Court of Queensland in Brisbane. The Commonwealth Law Courts in Brisbane are also named in his honour.

A Sir Harry's Connection with The University of Queensland

Of particular interest is Sir Harry's connection with The University of Queensland. He graduated as a Bachelor of Arts with first-class honours in English language and literature in 1937, and as a Bachelor of Laws in 1939, also with first-class honours. (6) He also served as president of The University of Queensland Union in 1938. (7) He completed the degree of Master of Laws ('LLM') in 1946 (8) and was awarded a Doctorate of Laws, Honoris Causa, in 1980. (9)

Sir Harry's time at The University of Queensland, and indeed his life after the completion of his studies, is comprehensively canvassed in the second edition of the TC Beirne School of Law's history, (10) where he is deemed a 'noteworthy figure' within the context of the Law School's restructuring and the associated student protests that occurred between 1950 and 1979. (11)

B Background

The bare bones of Sir Harry's life can be stated briefly. He was born in 1917 and died in 2005 at the age of 88. In between he had a busy and successful life as a student, barrister (very briefly before the Second World War), army officer, barrister again after the end of the war, university lecturer, Queen's Counsel and judge, culminating in his appointment to the High Court in 1970, and then to the position of Chief Justice of Australia from 1981 to 1987. He continued to remain active in his retirement.

He was successful in all of those roles, personally very popular and highly regarded by his peers, as David Jackson and Joan Priest have said, for his 'companionship, erudition and good humour'. (12) He had a long and very happy marriage to Muriel Dunn, a relationship that began when they were law students together at The University of Queensland. They had four children. Those of us who were lucky enough to be his associates remember him with great respect and affection.

C Focus on Papua New Guinea

What remains to be said about Sir Harry Gibbs, then, that has not been said already?

This article focuses on a relatively unexamined aspect of his life: his war service, particularly in and associated with Papua New Guinea ('PNG'), and the influence of that connection on his legal education and some, at least, of his later legal work. While serving as an army legal and staff officer he wrote the thesis for his LLM degree, 'The Laws of the Territory of New Guinea: Their Constitutional Source and Basic Content'. He presented it in 1946 and his examiners regarded it as possessing 'outstanding merit'. One of those examiners was Dr Thomas Penberthy Fry, whom I shall mention later. (13)

By one of life's odd coincidences, when I was Sir Harry's associate in 1973 and early 1974., he delivered a substantial judgment in the Administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea v Daera Guba. …

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