Richard Blackburn

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A photograph of Richard Blackburn

Sir Richard Arthur Blackburn OBE (26 July 1918 – 1 October 1987) was an Australian judge, prominent legal academic and military officer. He became a judge of three courts in Australia, and eventually became chief justice of the Australian Capital Territory. In the 1970s he decided one of Australia's earliest Aboriginal Land rights cases. His service to the Australian legal community is commemorated by the annual Sir Richard Blackburn Memorial lectures in Canberra.

Early years[edit]

Blackburn was born on 26 July 1918.[1] He was the son of Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn VC and Rose Ada Blackburn (née Kelly).[2] His father was at that time a Commissioner of the now defunct Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. His father had previously been a prominent legal practitioner in South Australia. Blackburn was educated at St Peter's College, Adelaide and was an undergraduate at St Mark's College at the University of Adelaide.[3] He graduated with First Class Honours in English Literature from the University of Adelaide. He won the John Howard Clark Prize as the candidate who was placed highest in the final examination.[4] He was chosen as the Rhodes Scholar for South Australia in 1940, but did not take it up immediately because of the outbreak of the Second World War.[3][4]

Military career[edit]

On 14 May 1940, during the Second World War, he enlisted with the Australian Army at Adelaide. He served with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in active service in North Africa and Papua New Guinea[4] until his discharge on 7 November 1945 as a Captain in the 2/9 Division Cavalry Regiment.[5]

At the end of the war, he took up his Rhodes Scholarship at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He and another South Australian, the Honourable Justice Andrew Wells, became the first Dominion students to be awarded the Eldon Scholarship. As a result, he attended the University of Oxford in 1949 and graduated with a Bachelor of Civil Law.[6] Blackburn was called to the Bar in the United Kingdom in Inner Temple in 1949.

Legal and academic life[edit]

Blackburn returned to Australia after his Oxford studies. He was admitted as a legal practitioner in South Australia in 1951.[3][4] Between 1950 and 1957 he was the Bonython Professor of Law at the Adelaide University. He married his wife Bryony Helen Dutton Curkeet, the daughter of the late Henry Hampden Dutton and his wife Emily Martin Dutton of Anlaby, Kapunda, South Australia, December 1, 1951 at her brother's home at Anlaby.[7] He became the Dean of the Faculty of Law in 1951 and served as Dean there until 1957. In 1957 he left full-time academic life to become a partner in the Adelaide law firm Finlaysons; however, he continued as a member of the Faculty until 1965.[8] His daughter and son were born whilst he was teaching at the Adelaide University.[4]

In 1957 he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the Adelaide University Regiment. In 1962 he was commissioned as a Colonel and given command of the First Battalion of the Royal South Australian Regiment. He served there until 1965.[3][4]

He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) on 1 January 1965 in honour of his military service.[9][10]

Judicial career[edit]

Richard Blackburn left academic life and was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in 1966. During this time, he became President of the Arts Council of the Northern Territory.[4] It was during his judicial life in the Northern Territory that he decided the first significant case concerning Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia. This was the case of Milirrpum v. Nabalco [11] in which important issues of aboriginal land rights were canvassed.[4] In that case he held that the communal system in which Australian Aborigines had lived could be called a “government of law, and not of men”, accepting that was a system of law predating British settlement. However, he ruled that the British common law did not recognize communal interests and in any event, those interests were extinguished by the assertion of British sovereignty over the land in question.[12] The case led to the eventual introduction of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976.[13]

In May 1971 he was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory. In that same year, he was also appointed a judge of the Federal Court of Australia in 1977 on that court's establishment and served as a judge in that latter court until 1984.[10] He was appointed chief judge of Supreme Court on 7 November 1977. He was appointed chief justice on 7 May 1982 when that position replaced the former position of chief judge.[3]

He was the chairperson of the Law Reform Commission of the Australian Capital Territory from 1971 to 1976.[3] In 1979, Blackburn authored a biographical entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography about his father. In keeping with Blackburn's nature of not seeking honours, he failed to note in the entry that he had himself gone on to become a distinguished judge.[2]

He was Patron of the St John Council for Australian Capital Territory from 1981 to 1984. In 1981, he became a Commander of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in honour of his service.[10]

He was knighted in the New Year's Honours of 1983 for his services to the law.[9] He became Chancellor of the Australian National University in 1984.[3]


Blackburn retired as Chief Justice due to ill health on 31 March 1985. At his retirement ceremony, Mr J Faulks speaking on behalf of the legal profession said:

'Amongst the lessons we have learned from you, Chief Justice, is the importance of humanity and understanding in the practise of the law. These qualities have been demonstrated again and again during your time on the Bench. .... Your Honour has also shown us that excellence in knowledge and even in ability is nothing without true humanity and concern for others. Your Honour has shown in word and in example that humility and an appreciation of the other's point of view are the hallmarks of a good lawyer, whether he be judge, solicitor or barrister' [4]

In 1986 he was elected an Hononary Fellow of St Mark's College. Blackburn was also invited to give the first Harrison Memorial Lecture at the Royal Military College at Duntroon after the Officer Training School was moved from Portsea.[14]

In May of that year, Blackburn was one of three former chief justices appointed by the Australian Government to be Parliamentary Commissioners in a Special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the conduct of Justice Lionel Murphy concerning allegations that Murphy had attempted to pervert the course of justice in the criminal proceeding involving solicitor Morgan Ryan.[15] He was appointed notwithstanding his ill-health because of his skills and abilities. Whilst the inquiry did not proceed to conclusion because of Murphy's own illness and subsequent death, the commissioners did make a report on what constituted misconduct for a judge under the Australian Constitution. Blackburn concluded:

"'[P]roved misbehaviour' means such misconduct, whether criminal or not, and whether or not displayed in the actual exercise of judicial functions, as, being morally wrong, demonstrates the unfitness for office of the judge in question."[16]

Blackburn died on 1 October 1987.[3] He was survived by his wife Bryony Helen Blackburn, who died in 2005 and children; Charlotte Calder and Tom Blackburn SC.

Sir Richard Blackburn Lectures[edit]

In 1996, the Law Society of the Australian Capital Territory inaugurated the Sir Richard Blackburn Lectures in honour of Blackburn's services to the legal community. The following people have given the lecture:

Published papers[edit]


  1. ^ Veteran Rolls
  2. ^ a b Blackburn, Arthur Seaforth (1892 - 1960) Biographical Entry - Australian Dictionary of Biography Online
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Law Society
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bagot
  5. ^ WW2 Nominal Roll
  6. ^ NT Supreme Court
  7. ^ "Adelaide News," Saturday, Dec. 1, 1951, page 9
  8. ^ 9 Adel. L. Rev. 43 (1983-1985) "Law School Curricula in Retrospect"; Blackburn, Richard Arthur
  9. ^ a b Itsanhonour
  10. ^ a b c Supreme Court
  11. ^ 1971 FLR 142
  12. ^ Brennan
  13. ^ Pratt, Angela. “Practising Reconciliation – "Reconciliation" and the Australian Parliament, 1991-2003” Unpublished paper 8 October 2003
  14. ^ Royal Military College of Australia - Harrison Memorial Lecture
  15. ^ David M. O'Brien and Peter H. Russell “Judicial Independence in the Age of Democracy” p181. Published 2001 University of Virginia Press ISBN 0-8139-2016-7
  16. ^ Cited in a speech by Judge Lloyd on 7 November 1998.$file/Speech_07Nov98_LloydJ.pdf
  17. ^ CIPL - Law & Policy Papers
  18. ^
  19. ^ Hicks and the Geneva Convention, by Stephen Kenny | Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston


Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir John Crawford
Chancellor of the Australian National University
1984 – 1987
Succeeded by
Sir Gordon Jackson