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Chamberlain, Sir Reginald Roderic St Clair (1901–1990)

by Kevin Duggan

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

Sir Reginald Roderic St Clair Chamberlain (1901-1990), judge, was born on 17 June 1901 at Quorn, South Australia, youngest of ten children of Henry Chamberlain, a farmer of Wirrabara, and his wife Annie Parr, née Payne, both born in South Australia. A gifted student, Roderic won several scholarships at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, and in 1918 was awarded the (Lord) Tennyson medal for English literature. After studying law at the University of Adelaide (LL B, 1922) he was admitted to the Bar on 16 December 1922 and became associate to several judges of the Supreme Court of South Australia.

In 1926 Chamberlain joined the Crown Law Office. Crown prosecutor in 1928-49, he appeared in many criminal cases and developed a restrained style of advocacy, speaking quietly and relying on logic and the effective use of language. His acute appreciation of human nature enabled him to relate to jurors and formulate arguments which he knew would appeal to their common sense. Furthermore, he had no peer as a cross-examiner. This combination of skills made him a tough adversary. Chief Justice J. J. Bray was to recall in 1971 that Chamberlain was `always courteous and considerate, and the more formidable for being so’. In the Supreme Court he was pitted against the doyens of the criminal defence Bar, including Francis Villeneuve Smith. When Villeneuve Smith, who displayed flamboyance and theatrical rhetoric in court, was last to address the jury, Chamberlain would take comprehensive notes of his opponent’s flowery prose and add to them deprecatory comments which he would have made, had he been given the opportunity to respond. Chamberlain drafted the South Australian Criminal Law Consolidation Act (1935).

Having taken silk in 1947, Chamberlain became assistant crown solicitor in 1948 and crown solicitor in 1952. He often appeared as counsel before the High Court of Australia and on three occasions before the Privy Council, but is most remembered for his role in the Stuart case. He prosecuted at the trial and represented the South Australian government at all later hearings. Rupert Max Stuart, an Aborigine, was found guilty in the Supreme Court in April 1959 of having raped and murdered a 9-year-old girl in December 1958, and was sentenced to death. After appeals to the Full Court, the High Court and the Privy Council had failed, claims of new evidence, which centred on Stuart’s movements at relevant times and the authenticity of his alleged confession, cast doubt on his guilt; the Adelaide News and its editor Rohan Rivett launched a campaign to reopen the case. A royal commission, chaired by Sir Mellis Napier, was appointed in 1959 to consider the new evidence. Although the verdict was upheld, during the proceedings Chamberlain announced that the Playford government had decided to commute Stuart’s sentence to life imprisonment.

In November 1959 Chamberlain was appointed a Supreme Court judge. Given his ability and experience, his selection came as no surprise. His style on the bench was practical and direct; he was, in his own words, `more interested in human problems than in the law as an intellectual exercise’. He was an ardent supporter of the jury system and the eligibility of women to serve as jurors. While he was required to preside in all jurisdictions, the criminal court was his preferred choice. His written judgments and directions to juries were lucid and succinct; his ability to persuade jurors remained, even though the judicial role demands a more moderate approach in order that jurors not be overawed by the bench. Although defence counsel often complained that he allowed himself to `descend into the dust of the arena’ when reviewing the evidence in favour of a conviction, it was difficult to demonstrate this by reference only to the words of the summing-up. In one appeal against a murder conviction, an attempt was made to give colour to the words through an affidavit chronicling Chamberlain’s mannerisms and the inflection with which some of his words were spoken. The appeal failed.

Chamberlain presided (1963) over the State Electoral Commission, and in 1967-68 arbitrated in the dispute between the New South Wales government and the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority concerning the amount that the authority should pay in annual licence fees to help maintain the Kosciuszko National Park. He was founding chairman (1970-75) of the South Australian Parole Board. Knighted in 1970, he retired in 1971 and in 1973 revealed that Playford had told him at the time of his judicial appointment that cabinet had intended to name him chief justice after Napier’s anticipated retirement. In the event Sir Mellis stayed on until l967, and Donald Dunstan’s Labor government appointed Bray instead.

Commenting on the Stuart case after his retirement, Chamberlain told the journalist Stewart Cockburn that `an attempt was undoubtedly made here to undermine some of our institutions’. Convinced that Stuart was rightly convicted, he expressed his view both in public statements and in his book The Stuart Affair (1973). He also spoke out several times in favour of capital punishment in certain circumstances. The case has continued to attract attention. A feature film, Black and White (2002), inaccurately portrayed Chamberlain as an urbane and wealthy lawyer whereas, in fact, he lived unostentatiously in a cottage at Glenelg.

Sir Roderic’s interests outside the law reflected his love of the English language. He was a long-time vice-president of the State branch of the English Speaking Union and a member of the Modern Pickwick Club. Chairman for some years of the Anti-Cancer Foundation of the University of Adelaide, he was made a life governor of the fund. He was a member of the Adelaide Club and the Commonwealth Club of Adelaide, a golfer, a bridge player and an accomplished pianist. On 15 June 1929 at St Peter’s Church of England, Glenelg, he had married Leila Macdonald Haining (d.1985), a clerk. Survived by his daughter, he died on 26 February 1990 at Glenelg and was buried in St Jude’s cemetery, Brighton.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, The Stuart Case (1961, revised edn 2002)
  • South Australian State Reports, 1971, p v
  • Law Society Bulletin (Saouth Australia), May 1986, p 111
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 June 1971, p 2, 29 Jan 1973, p 3, 27 Feb 1990, p 11
  • L. Arnold, interview with R. Chamberlain (typescript, 1973, State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Kevin Duggan, 'Chamberlain, Sir Reginald Roderic St Clair (1901–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chamberlain-sir-reginald-roderic-st-clair-12305/text22099, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 27 May 2018.

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

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