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Aickin, Sir Keith Arthur (1916–1982)

by Daryl Dawson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Keith Arthur Aickin (1916-1982), judge, was born on 1 February 1916 at East Malvern, Melbourne, younger son of James Lee Aickin, a schoolmaster from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Edith Clarabel, née Knight. Keith attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where his father was senior mathematics master (1909-37). He proceeded to the University of Melbourne (LL B, 1937; LL M, 1939) and graduated with first-class honours, the E. J. B. Nunn scholarship and the Supreme Court judges’ prize. On 1 May 1939 he was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor. That year he became associate to Justice (Sir) Owen Dixon of the High Court of Australia.

At the request of Dixon, who chaired the Central Wool Committee and the Shipping Control Board, Aickin was attached (1941-42) to those two bodies. When Dixon was appointed Australian minister in Washington in 1942, he insisted that Aickin accompany him as third secretary of the Australian legation. In 1944 Aickin went on to London, where he became legal adviser to the European office of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1948. This initiative allowed him, many years later, to appear in the House of Lords as a member of the English Bar to argue a copyright case for an Australian company.

In 1948 Aickin was appointed to the legal department of the United Nations in New York. Returning to Australia in 1949, he signed the Victorian Bar roll on 4 February and read with A. D. G. (Sir Alistair) Adam. Aickin’s practice expanded rapidly. Within two years he was appearing without a leader in the High Court. He also lectured (1951-56) in company law at the University of Melbourne. On 10 December 1957 he took silk. At St John’s Church of England, Toorak, on 17 April 1952 he had married Elizabeth May Gullett.

Aickin’s skills, pre-eminently those of an appellate advocate, extended over the wide areas of company and commercial law; taxation; constitutional law; and intellectual property, including patent law. He was an effective cross-examiner, particularly in matters involving scientific or technical evidence. His calm and deliberate manner often belied a certain steeliness. Once in a criminal appeal, on a pro bono brief, Aickin was asked by an impatient judge why he was wasting the court’s time when his client had obviously been guilty. Aickin replied, `That is not the point of the exercise your Honour. The point of the exercise is whether he had a fair trial’.

It was rare for Aickin to appear in a criminal court. In the more complex civil matters he excelled. He was able to argue difficult cases with a subtlety disguised by an apparent simplicity. His presentation of a case was the result of the painstaking dissection of an argument in order to strip away its inessential elements and expose its strengths. The argument would then be lucidly delivered with a logical precision that was compelling.

Aickin was a formal, quietly spoken man. He was reserved, but capable of real warmth with those he knew well. He was modest, yet aware of his ability so that his arguments and opinions were confidently expressed. His proficiency gained him a nationwide reputation in the areas in which he practised and his advice was widely sought. In 1969 he declined appointment to the High Court when Sir Alan Taylor died. His abilities had by this time been recognised beyond his practice as a barrister. Honorary secretary (1951-59) of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, he also became a director of Mayne Nickless Ltd (1958-76), P & O Australia Ltd (1969-76), Comalco Ltd (1970-76) and the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd (1971-76). He was a member of the interim council (1966) and council (1966-74) of La Trobe University.

On 20 September 1976, following the retirement of Sir Edward McTiernan, Aickin finally accepted appointment to the High Court. Two months later he was appointed KBE. He did not attain the same stature as a judge as he had enjoyed as a member of the Bar. This was partly because his time on the bench was so short, but his judgments tended to contain lengthy passages from previous judgments and did not display the same penetrating analysis as his arguments and advice as counsel.

Sir Keith died on 18 June 1982 in South Melbourne, as a result of injuries suffered in a motorcar accident two weeks earlier. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and son, he was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $587,754.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (1986)
  • T. Blackshield et al (eds), The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia (2001)
  • BHP Journal, Autumn 1972, p 26
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 56, no 8, 1982, p 438, vol 56, no 9, 1982, p 482
  • Australian Tax Review, vol 11, no 3, 1982, p 133
  • University of Queensland Law Journal, vol 12, no 2, 1982, p 3.

Citation details

Daryl Dawson, 'Aickin, Sir Keith Arthur (1916–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/aickin-sir-keith-arthur-12123/text21717, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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