The Federation Press

Sir Francis Forbes

First Chief Justice of New South Wales, 1823-1837

Overview

Much has been written about Sir Francis Forbes, first Chief Justice of NSW (1823-1837) and the first to be appointed to the office of Chief Justice in Australia. Because it was his responsibility to introduce the rule of law in a colony still preoccupied with the reception and reformation of British convicts, he came into collision with many of the leaders of the limited free society.

Although he led a life of scrupulous detachment from the community, apart from his enforced and sometimes embarrassing membership of the Legislative Council, he was unsparingly, and wrongly, criticised for favouring the convict class. Those and other criticisms have persisted and been expanded over the years. This study seeks to correct their misconceptions and misinterpretations.

Forbes did not arrive in NSW as a judicial novice. He had been chief Justice of Newfoundland and a Crown Law Officer in Bermuda. This book gives closer attention to those early years than has any previous account, as his reputation for probity and ability, already well established before he came to Sydney, was the antithesis of the bad character attributed to him by his enemies in Australia. A review is also offered of his awkward relations with the headstrong Governor Darling and of the peculiar difficulties that confronted Forbes in establishing Australia’s first superior court.

Reviews

Bennett does an impressive job of answering critics such as Brian Fletcher, AGL Shaw and Manning Clark ... [he] has succeeded in resurrecting the reputation of Francis Forbes as an important contributor to both the legal and political life of Australia – one who towered above his judicial contemporaries and immediate successors in Australia and stands out among his counterparts elsewhere in the Empire at the time. - John McLaren, Australian Historical Studies, Vol 34 (122), October 2003

This intriguing and very readable work shows that the sour assessments of Forbes in earlier biographies are quite wrong and that ... no other appointment ‘could have been more fortunate for the future of the Australian legal system ... ’.
Forbes’s robust and and independent character was shaped ... in his birthplace, Bermuda, where his early legal career flourished, and Newfoundland, of which he became Chief Justice in 1816 at the tender age of 32. His was a colonial career-path par excellence ...
Bennett builds a convincing case for the pivotal role of Forbes in laying the foundations of an independent Australian legal system ... Forbes’s stand against the excesses of vice-regal authority, such as governor Ralph Darling’s attempts to control the press, seems all the more lonely across the mists of time. Yet the court he established is now one of the great courts of the democratic world. ...
... [A] truly important Australian jurist and champion of democracy whose wit, work ethic and good humour helped him guide his developing court, and the rule of law, through the shark-infested waters of Sydney in the 1820’s and 1830’s. - NSW Bar News, Winter 2002

[A] handsome hardcover [which] will be essential for research collections and for those with an interest in Australian, Newfoundland and Bermudan legal history in the early 19th century, and could be recommended as a gift for festive occasions... and serious holiday reading... - Law Institute Journal (Vic), May 2002

Table of Contents

Foreword
by The Honourable A.M. Gleeson, A.C, Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia
Acknowledgements
List of Illustrations
“Dramatis Personae”

Introduction

Part I - The Northern Hemisphere

1. “Solus Inter Plurimos”
2. “A Fief of Admiralty”
3. “Dissipating Clouds of Error”
4. “Detained in London”

Part II - The Southern Hemisphere

5. “Credit for Good Intentions”
6. “Lord Chief Justice Abbott at the Horse Guards”
7. “He Would Not Certify Me If Required”
8. “We Entered on a New World”
9. “You Are Chief Justice of Australia?”
Conclusion/ Abbreviations/ Notes/ Index

Of interest...