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Clancy, Sir John Sydney (1895–1970)

by J. W. Shaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir John Sydney James Clancy (1895-1970), judge, was born on 30 May 1895 at Glebe, Sydney, son of John Clancy, a commission agent from Ireland, and his native-born wife Mary, née Bradshaw. Educated at Marist Brothers' High School, Darlinghurst, and at the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1925), young Clancy worked as a clerk in the Department of Public Instruction from 12 February 1913. He enlisted in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force on 11 August 1914, served at Rabaul and was discharged on 18 January 1915. Joining the Australian Imperial Force on 14 January 1916, he fought on the Western Front with the 20th Battalion until wounded in action on 3 May 1917.

Discharged in Sydney on 2 July 1918, Clancy returned to the department and to his studies. On 22 August 1922 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral he married Ethyl Florence Christobel Buckland, a 24-year-old civil servant. Admitted to the Bar on 30 July 1925, he was attached to the Government Insurance Office in 1926-27 and soon obtained briefs to represent injured workers in compensation cases. He gained a reputation for being a level-headed, tactically shrewd and fair-minded advocate. His most notable appearance was for the relations of a young coalminer Norman Brown at the inquest into Brown's death which occurred in the violent incident at Rothbury colliery on 16 December 1929. He also appeared for the Rothbury miners in their appeals against convictions for unlawful assembly.

When Jack Lang's government gazetted Clancy's appointment to the District Court bench on 13 November 1931, controversy erupted in the press and the legal profession. One editorialist claimed that the promotion was 'the latest manifestation of the shockingly low level to which the public life of New South Wales has been abased' and that it was 'untenable' to suggest that six years of practice was a fit qualification. Rumours were rife that Clancy's appearance for the Rothbury miners had prompted his elevation without the knowledge of the attorney-general. Senior barristers attacked the appointment as 'indefensible' and the Council of the Bar of New South Wales protested. In the Legislative Assembly on 24 November 1931 the Opposition leader (Sir) Thomas Bavin argued that Clancy lacked experience, inferring that the decision was based on 'mere personal friendship' or an example of political expedience.

Despite the hue and cry, Clancy gradually settled into a conventional, widely-respected judicial career. He served on the District Court and was chairman (from 1944) of the Crown Employees Appeal Board. Raised to the Supreme Court in July 1947, he became senior puisne judge and was acting chief justice (1964-65). His life as a judge was orthodox and conservative: he lived at the affluent North Shore suburb of Lindfield, belonged to the fashionable racing club, Tattersall's, and was prominent in the affairs of the Catholic Church and active in the Catholic Lawyers' Guild of St Thomas More. He was appointed C.M.G. (1964) and K.B.E. (1967).

Clancy made no substantial contribution to legal theory or principle. The law reports are barren of any of his judgements of enduring intellectual value. Yet, he did have the attribute of rugged common sense, in the 'no-nonsense' tradition of Sydney's Common Law Bar. Decisive, firm in his opinions and efficient in supervising the cases which came before him, he was not regarded as excessively harsh in the sentences he handed down. His stern restraint in sentencing the child kidnapper and murderer Stephen Bradley won praise.

In July 1949 Clancy was appointed to the first council of the New South Wales University of Technology (University of New South Wales); in 1960 he became chancellor. His stewardship began with public debate when the historian Dr Russel Ward claimed that the university's academic appointments were tainted by political discrimination and that security reports were used in vetting applications. Both Clancy and the vice-chancellor (Sir) Philip Baxter asserted that no religious or political tests were applied to appointments at the university.

Retiring from the bench on 26 May 1965, Clancy was described by Chief Justice (Sir) Leslie Herron as 'an unprejudiced and fearless judge', a person of simple and sincere motives, and 'a man of the people'. Sir John died on 15 October 1970 at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery; his wife and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • A. H. Willis, The University of New South Wales (Syd, 1983)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 17 Dec 1929, p 2514, 24 Nov 1931, p 7080
  • State Reports, New South Wales1947-65
  • Weekly Notes (New South Wales), 1947-65
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 15, 18 Feb, 24, 26 Sept 1930, 13, 14 Nov 1931, 17 Aug 1944, 9 July 1947, 15 Nov 1960, 27 May 1965, 17 Nov 1970
  • World (Sydney) and Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1931
  • Bulletin, 18 Nov 1931
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 2 Apr 1961
  • Catholic Weekly (Sydney), 22 Oct 1970
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 May 1965
  • New South Wales Bar Association, Sydney, minutes, 13 Nov 1931
  • private information.

Citation details

J. W. Shaw, 'Clancy, Sir John Sydney (1895–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clancy-sir-john-sydney-9749/text17221, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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