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Leslie Ronald Zines (1930–2014)

by Anthony Mason

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Leslie Zines, n.d.

Leslie Zines, n.d.

It is with a sense of acute loss that I speak this afternoon. Leslie Zines was my close and dear friend. So I hope that my remarks will recall, as far as words can do, his life, his achievements and his personality, which we celebrate in this memorial service here in the Great Hall of University House.

Leslie was associated with the ANU for the greater part of his life, first as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, subsequently at the early age of 36, as Sir Robert Garran Professor of Law, later in 1994 as Emeritus Professor and member of the Law Program in the Institute of Advanced Studies, and finally in what is now called the ANU College of Law. He was Dean of the Faculty of Law 1973–75 and 1985–86, but he preferred scholarship to administration.

He was immensely proud of his association with the ANU, an association that included University House. It was the venue of many conferences, seminars and dinners in which he participated over the years.

Leslie was not only a constitutional law scholar of national and international renown, but an outstanding teacher as well. Few academics manage to combine these two different qualities as successfully as he did.

Judges and lawyers regarded his principal work The High Court and the Constitution, which has gone to five editions, as the leading study of the High Court of Australia’s constitutional jurisprudence. Justice Gummow, who recently retired from the High Court and is now a Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law, has stated that: ‘developments in methods of constitutional interpretation over the last thirty years have been influenced, in significant measure, by Professor Zines.’

As Justice Gummow himself was regarded as an ‘influential’ judge, his tribute comes straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Leslie was also the co-author of the second edition and sole author of the third edition of Zelman Cowen’s work on Federal Jurisdiction, the authoritative text on a topic that is now so complex as to be almost inscrutable. And Leslie was the author of Constitutional Change in the Commonwealth, a collection that incorporated the Smuts Memorial Lectures, which he delivered at Cambridge University, dealing with the history of the development of constitutional autonomy in Australia and other members of the British Commonwealth.

Leslie was the author of many lectures and papers on constitutional, equity, trust and intellectual property law. His presence at a constitutional law conference in Australia was virtually inevitable. His publications and his lectures exhibited his incisive and ordered mind and a clarity of expression and style unmatched in the dense and impenetrable undergrowth of constitutional jurisprudence.

Among other appointments, Leslie was appointed with his great friend Bryan Beaumont, then a QC, to conduct a Royal Commission into Tasmania’s Parliamentary System. From 1985 to 1988, he was, along with Mr E.G. Whitlam QC, Sir Maurice Byers QC and others, a member of the Commonwealth Constitutional Commission. Earlier, in 1958–59, he had been Secretary to the Spicer Committee, which recommended substantial changes to Australia’s copyright law. He also served on many ANU committees, notably when Peter Karmel was Vice-Chancellor. He had a very high regard for Peter Karmel, which was reciprocated.

In 1992 he was awarded the Order of Australia at Officer level for service to the Australian legal system, particularly in the field of constitutional law. In 1994 the ANU conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Law. The citation records his peerless and formidable reputation as a teacher and summed up his work as distinguished by ‘elegance, sensitivity to our history and political development’ and ‘a comparativist’s appreciation of what we can learn from and give to other federations’.

In the Pantheon of Australia’s outstanding constitutional law scholars, Leslie was chronologically the third in a line of succession, beginning with Professor William Harrison Moore of Melbourne University, followed by Professor Geoffrey Sawer of Melbourne University and the ANU. Their fields of interest and experience differed so that one cannot compare them. But it is fair to say that no one has matched the excellence of Leslie’s systematic analysis of the High Court case law in the light of the constitutional provisions, their antecedent history and their wider context.

He had a longstanding connection with Cambridge University. He spent his sabbaticals mostly at Wolfson College, where he formed an enduring friendship with Sir David Williams, the English constitutional law scholar who was President of Wolfson College and later the first Executive Vice- Chancellor of Cambridge University. In 1992–93, Leslie was appointed Arthur Goodhart Professor of Legal Science at Cambridge University and lectured on comparative federalism. In 1995 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College.

Many of you will recall Leslie, not so much as a jurist but as an inspired teacher, a teacher who succeeded in encouraging a spirit of inquiry and in promoting a systematic method of thinking about problems. As I speak to lawyers, who were his students, their immense respect and their sense of gratitude to him shines through. He pursued the Socratic method of teaching. Students were expected to read in advance of lectures and to submit to searching interrogation. The comment made to me has been ‘He was tough but fair’. He was the University’s outstanding law teacher. The faculty’s reputation was based in large measure, but by no means solely, on his reputation and the high regard his students had for him. Their regard for him was matched by his own regard for them. He looked upon them as part of an extended family. Indeed, one of them, Justice Griffiths of the Federal Court, became one of his closest friends.

As a scholar at Harvard University, where he graduated as a Master of Laws, he had learned the Socratic method of teaching from Professor Paul Freund, the legendary American constitutional lawyer. Justice Gageler of the High Court, an ANU and also a Harvard graduate, has said that in his time at Harvard there was no finer exponent of the Socratic method than Leslie. I remember Leslie telling me that he was asked by Freund how he would answer a question of interpretation. At that time, as at others, some fancy theories of interpretation were in vogue in the United States. Leslie’s answer was that he would read the text in the light of the language of the provision, its entire context, having regard to its purpose and policy—in other words, an approach that matches our current standard. Freund’s response was: ‘Zines, your approach is quite novel but not to be entirely dismissed as unacceptable on that account.’ It was a response that Leslie would much have enjoyed making, had he been in Freund’s position.

It reminds me of an anecdote related by a friend of mine who as a student was asked by Leslie what he thought of a judgment of Latham CJ. My friend, whom I shall call Smith, mumbled somewhat hesitantly ‘I don’t think much of it’. Another student, of a kind we all know, put his hand up and launched into a lengthy and confident disquisition on the Latham judgment. At the end of it, Leslie simply said, ‘I think I prefer Mr. Smith’s answer’.

To savour the flavour of the comment, you need to know that one of Leslie’s characteristics as a lecturer was that he was a performer, indeed a showman, and that the lecture room was his stage. You did not need to be a close friend of Leslie to realise that he was a showman. He was a gifted raconteur who appreciated his own wit and humour as much as, perhaps more than, anyone else. The telling of the story, whatever it was, in his distinctive voice, was accompanied by gestures, waving of hands and irrepressible laughter. The irrepressible laughter just as enthusiastically greeted the wit and humour of others.

Margaret Stone has described Leslie as ‘a bit of a gossip’, and so he was. He always enjoyed the latest scandal. As a sparkling conversationalist he knew that a bit of gossip makes the world go round. He was at his best recounting the early days of University House when Professor Trendall was the Master. Some of the social activities engaged in by residents of the house in the early days were revealed in the Canberra Times’ coverage of a divorce case, matrimonial misdemeanours in such cases then being publishable. By today’s relaxed standards what happened then wouldn’t rate a mention, but things were different then. I remember a youthful student representative saying about that time that one of the benefits of education at the ANU was that many public servants studied part-time courses, and this enabled full-time students to learn ‘how the other half doesn’t live’. Again, we owe this advertisement of the ANU to ‘in depth’ reporting by the Canberra Times.

My friendship with Leslie, which arose out of my association with the ANU Law School, began in the 1960s at about the time when Judith Wilson became the love of his life. Her wit and understanding responded to his mercurial personality. Her devotion to Leslie and her experience as a researcher in the ANU Department of Anthropology enabled her to assist him in typing, proofreading and correcting his academic writing. It was not long after that my wife, Pat, met them both and from then on the four of us met regularly for dinner in Canberra (sometimes at Boffins next door) and Sydney, as well as travelling together in England and Europe. Pat was captivated by Leslie’s quicksilver conversation. Leslie and Judith regularly had Christmas lunch in Sydney with our family. Leslie and Judith were regarded as part of our extended family. Leslie always followed the careers of family members with keen interest. At these Christmas lunches, Leslie’s humorous jousts with my stepmother generated much hilarity.

Leslie was an avid reader. His main interest, like my own, apart from the law, was history. But his interests extended widely to current affairs, politics and literature. So there was never a shortage of topics to talk about. It might be a book, an article in the New York Review of Books, a High Court judgment or the latest rumour—but never sport. In the last year of his life, when in hospital, he greatly enjoyed Michael Fullilove’s Rendezvous with Destiny.

The warmth of his friendship always lifted my spirits. Whenever I appeared in his room in the Coombs Building or in the College of Law, his face would light up and he would exclaim ‘Tony!’, with an obvious sense of delight. Of all the Zines experiences, I shall miss these fleeting moments most of all.

Leslie was a very private and reserved person. He rarely spoke about his early life and that is why I have left his early life to the end. He was born on 12 December 1930. His father Morris was a tailor born in Safed, Palestine, one of the four holiest cities in Judaism. Morris followed in the footsteps of his father, who was also a Jewish tailor. Morris migrated to Australia when 15 years of age. He married Maud Franklin, Leslie’s mother, who was from Leeds, on Christmas Day, 1929. Leslie was an only child and his mother died when he was 10 years old. Thereafter he lived with relatives and attended several primary schools before returning to the family home in Coogee after his father remarried. Leslie and his stepmother had a close and loving relationship.

He went to Sydney Boys High School, where he matriculated. In 1952 he graduated with an LLB degree with first-class honours from Sydney University. Leslie told me that he was walking along Coogee beach with his father when he was 16 or 17 and his father asked him what he wanted to do after leaving school. Leslie replied, ‘I want to be a philosopher’. His father then asked, ‘What do philosophers do?’ Leslie’s answer was ‘Nothing’. His father was evidently nonplussed by the response. Later Leslie followed advice from a career adviser to do law. His father was much relieved to hear this.

He was admitted as a barrister after he graduated and was believed to be the youngest barrister in NSW when he was admitted. But he did not practise as a barrister. He had been articled with Remington & Co., a Sydney firm of solicitors. Geoffrey Remington, Leslie’s master solicitor, was an impressive-looking man of imposing appearance as you would expect of a solicitor who then acted for Rolls Royce Ltd in Australia. In my mind’s eye, I can see the diminutive and mercurial Leslie walking down the street in the company of the confident and imposing Geoffrey Remington.

From 1953 to 1961, Leslie served as an officer of the Federal Attorney- General’s Department where he worked with the then Solicitor-General, Sir Kenneth Bailey, and later with Sir Garfield Barwick when he became Attorney-General. One colleague in the department with whom he was friendly was Bill Deane, later Sir William Deane, High Court Justice and Governor-General. I am told that they entertained the idea of jointly writing a book on the Constitution. Leslie was known to say: ‘Who would have written the chapter on implied rights?’ Leslie left the department to join the ANU Faculty of Law in 1962.

Leslie’s life and achievements speak for themselves. His career represents what we think of as a great Australian story. The son of migrants who, through his own efforts, without any advantages except his own abilities, achieved pre-eminence in his chosen field of activity. And, in doing so, as a teacher, influenced the life and career of so many others.

We shall miss him not only for his achievements, but also as a personality and as a wonderful friend. We offer our deepest sympathy to his beloved Judith and the members of his family.

* The obituary was given as a eulogy in the Great Hall at University House on 4 August 2014.

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Citation details

Anthony Mason, 'Zines, Leslie Ronald (1930–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Leslie Zines, n.d.

Leslie Zines, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


12 December, 1930
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


31 May, 2014 (aged 83)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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