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Jack Edwin Richardson (1920–2011)

by Leslie Zines

Emeritus Professor Jack Edwin Richardson was a man of many parts: government legal adviser, barrister, law professor and dean, prominent member of national and international legal bodies, and Commonwealth Ombudsman.

His greatest strength and enjoyment lay in shaping and designing new and nascent institutions. Two of them that still bear the stamp of his vision are the Faculty of Law at The Australian National University and the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office.

I first met him in 1954 when he had returned to the Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra, after a year’s leave studying at McGill University. He was a wiry, energetic and dashing man in his mid-30s who drove an MG and wore a beret in the French manner. He had a great interest in motor sports and, jointly with a friend, donated a perpetual trophy to the Canberra Sporting Car Club. I learnt very quickly that he was one of the most highly regarded lawyers in the department.

Jack Richardson was born in Victoria and educated at Camperdown State School, Geelong College and Melbourne University, where he gained the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Master of Laws. After a period of military service during World War II, he entered the Commonwealth Public Service, becoming an officer of the Attorney-General’s Department in 1949. It was there that he developed his lifelong interest in, and fascination with, constitutional law. This had been initially sparked by his lecturers at the University of Melbourne, Professor Kenneth Bailey and Geoffrey Sawer. Both of these leading constitutional experts were to remain part of his life, Bailey as secretary of his department and Sawer as professorial colleague at the ANU.

During his time in the department he also played a leading role in the development of air and space law, a burgeoning area of practical and theoretical importance in the post-war period. He had studied the subject at McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law and became one of Australia’s early experts. This led to his appointment as a member of the Legal Committee of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) from 1952 to 1957. Later, at the ANU, he introduced the first course in Air and Space Law in Australia.

In 1956 a joint parliamentary committee was appointed to consider amendments to the Australian Constitution, the first such general review since a report of a Royal Commission in 1929. Jack Richardson was employed as legal secretary and wrote the report of the committee in what came to be recognised as his characteristically clear and succinct style. However, only one of the committee’s recommendations resulted, nearly a decade later, in a constitutional amendment, namely, the repeal of the provision that prevented Aborigines from being counted in the census.

When Sir Garfield Barwick became Commonwealth Attorney-General, he set about preparing legislation to prevent the anti-competitive trade practices and monopolistic behaviour that permeated Australian commercial life. He chose Jack Richardson as his chief assistant and adviser in that task. Richardson travelled abroad with Barwick to see how such legislation operated in other countries, but before the matter could be taken much further, he had, in 1960, accepted the position of Professor of Public Law at the newly established Faculty of Law at the ANU. The regulation of restrictive trade practices remained a close interest of his and in 1967 his Introduction to the Australian Trade Practices Act was published.

It was at the ANU that Richardson showed his true mettle. He and Professor Harold Ford were appointed foundation professors of the Faculty of Law in the newly established School of General Studies. By agreement Ford became the first Dean, but at the end of 1961 he announced that he was returning to Melbourne to take up a chair at his former university. Richardson became Dean and Robert Garran Professor of Law. He remained Dean until 1970, apart from a period on study leave in 1966–67 as a Visiting Professor at McGill University.

The ANU Law Faculty at its inception was in a very different position from those new law faculties established a few years later at Monash University and the University of New South Wales. They started with nothing and were designed to be large institutions to which considerable resources would need to be allocated. The ANU Law Faculty had inherited the staff, students and resources of Canberra University College, a small outpost of Melbourne University.

Richardson came to an institution that had 78 students, mostly part-time, five full-time members of staff and a law library of about 4,000 volumes. In contrast to the new faculties shortly to be established in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the ANU faculty was in a city of about 40,000 people, and some in the University believed that it had little future. Jack Richardson set out with fervour, skill and persistence to create a first-class national law school against opposition from those who thought it a fruitless enterprise. By 1970, when he retired from the Deanship, the institution he envisaged was close to achievement. His success lay in having clear goals and arguing for them constantly in university boards and committees and in the Council. It was said by one senior academic that he sometimes won because people gave way to avoid the boredom and fatigue of hearing it all again.

At any rate, by 1970, when he ceased to be Dean, the Law School had a new building, greatly increased library resources, about 500 students, a high academic level of entry and a highly regarded law journal, the Federal Law Review. It is difficult to think of anyone else with enough vision and determination to achieve what he did in that period of time. Later he spent about a year on study leave practising at the Sydney Bar.

In 1977 Richardson left the University to become the first Commonwealth Ombudsman. With only very general statutory guidance, much depended on the skills, administrative and diplomatic, of the incumbent. As the office of ombudsman was one that federal bureaucrats had not experienced before, some resentment and irritation was to be expected. It was also necessary to inform the public of the use they could make of the Ombudsman. Richardson bought at low cost advertising space on Canberra’s milk cartons, which depicted cartoon figures of a harassed citizen and an arrogant official and directed the reader to the Ombudsman’s telephone number. This caused some anger, but Richardson and his staff, by making clear their objectivity in investigating public complaints and patiently listening to both the officers and the complainant, established the Ombudsman as an accepted and respected part of Australian public life. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia in 1984.

After he retired as Ombudsman in 1985, Jack Richardson spent time in legal practice and set up the Ombudsman’s office in Samoa, where he was Ombudsman from 1990 to 1992. He spent increasing time at a horse stud he and his wife Grace ran, first at a property near Murrumbateman and later at Cobbity, southwest of Sydney. He kept in touch with the Law Faculty, where he was a Visiting Fellow, taking part in seminars and conferences and writing articles and chapters on various aspects of public law. His advice was often sought by members of the legal profession.

His last participation in the constitutional affairs of Australia was as one of a committee of three appointed in 2005 to put forward proposals for resolving deadlocks between the two houses of federal parliament. At the time of his death he had just completed working on a book on Australian federal government and constitutional law.

He died on 13 June 2011 after a long illness. He is survived by his wife, a son, Matthew, two daughters, Rebecca and Felicia, and nine grandchildren.

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Citation details

Leslie Zines, 'Richardson, Jack Edwin (1920–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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