Sir John Latham and the High Court
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 22:58 by C. J Lloyd
The career of John Greig Latham is in many ways the most extraordinary in the history of legal practice in Australia. In just under 50 years, Latham encompassed virtually every facet of the legal profession: student, and teacher of contracts and personal property; articled clerk, barrister and ultimately a leading silk at the Melbourne bar; twice Attorney-General of Australia; for 16 years Chief Justice of Australia. This remarkable career was closely intertwined with a political life of comparable achievement. The peculiar fascination of Latham lies in such a blending of the law and politics. There have been other political lawyers whose careers have been comparable in some respects with Latham: Isaacs, Barwick and Murphy are .three obvious examples. Menzies was a more distinguished politician and barrister than Latham, but his career was crowned with politics and not the High Court bench. Only Evatt with his substantial scholarship, his distinction as an advocate, his term as Federal Attorney General, his contribution to international jurisprudence, and his long term on the High Court (although he did not become Chief Justice) in any way rivals Latham. It is not intended in this brief paper to display the full range of Latham's legal career or to submit it to any intensive scrutiny; this would require a major study (1). Rather it is intended to focus on two aspects: the close relationship between law and politics in Latham's career as exemplified in his attitudes to the Communist Party and the defence power; and secondly the evolution of Latham's conception of the High Court of Australia, and how it should function. It is intended to bring these two themes together in an examination of Latham's participation in the Communist Party Case (1951) 83 CLR 1, the last great constitutional case of his career, indeed his last significant contribution to Australian public life. Accordingly, the paper begins with a brief account of Latham's legal career until 1935, when he became Chief Justice. It goes on to examine the development of Latham's antipathy to the Communist Party, and his attempts as Commonwealth Attorney General to coerce and even suppress the Party. The next section considers the High Court which Latham inherited and the changes he brought to its ethos and functions. The paper then takes up the importance of the defence power in Latham's legal career, opening the way for a final analysis of Latham's part in the Communist Party Case.