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Crisp, Sir Malcolm Peter (1912–1984)

by H. A. Finlay

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

Sir Malcolm Peter Crisp (1912-1984), judge, and PATRICK GUY (1917-1988), solicitor and magistrate, were born on 21 March 1912 and 10 April 1917, eldest and youngest of four children of Tasmanian-born parents Thomas Malcolm Crisp, solicitor, and his wife Myrtle May, née Donnelly. Both boys were born in Tasmania: Peter at Devonport, and Patrick at Ulverstone. They were descendants of Samuel Crisp who had arrived in Tasmania as a convict in 1826. Several family members, including Sir Harold Crisp, had been prominent in Tasmanian legal circles.

Peter was educated at the Burnie convent school, St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, Sydney, and the University of Tasmania (LL B, 1932). He joined the staff of the Supreme Court and Sheriff’s Department, and on 22 March 1933 was admitted to the Bar. On 27 September 1935 in Hobart he married with Catholic rites Edna Eunice Taylor, a nurse. In 1936 he was appointed a solicitor with the SolicitorGeneral’s Department. Having served as an artillery officer in the Militia, on 1 January 1940 he was appointed captain, Australian Imperial Force, and posted to the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment. Arriving in Britain in June, he was seconded to AIF Headquarters then to the Australian Army Staff, United Kingdom. He rose to lieutenant colonel (1944) before returning to Australia in March 1945. Promoted to temporary colonel in July, he was posted to Morotai as staff officer, convening authority, for the military courts that tried Japanese war criminals. On 26 February 1946 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Resuming his legal career in Hobart as a crown solicitor, in 1951 Crisp became solicitor-general. In 1947-52 he lectured in law at the University of Tasmania and in 1948-55 served on the university council. He took silk on 5 July 1951 and next year was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court. Held in high esteem by his colleagues and other members of the legal profession, he showed himself to be a master of all branches of the law, particularly criminal and administrative. Among the criminal cases, his judgment in Regina v. Vallance (1960) set a benchmark on the subject of intent and the mental element in crime. In Hitchens v. The Queen (1962) he addressed the problems of insanity in relation to criminal responsibility, and in Haas v. The Queen (1964) he delivered an outstanding judgment concerning attempts to commit a crime. These judgments had a lasting impact on the development of the criminal law in Tasmania, and helped to focus attention on the provisions of the State’s criminal code.

In the field of administrative law, Crisp gave two especially valuable judgments. First, in Gerard v. Hope and others (1965), with considerable erudition and at some length, he dealt with a case (involving fourteen days’ wrongful imprisonment) that others might have disposed of more summarily, and in which he awarded damages against the State. Secondly, in St Leonards Municipality v. Brettingham-Moore (1968) he extended the boundaries within which the courts could interfere in administrative action affecting individual rights. He also brought a breadth of learning to other areas of the law, especially in cases involving medical or scientific expertise. On the occasion of Crisp’s retirement, in 1971, Chief Justice Sir Stanley Burbury described his judgments as significant `examples of incisive, clear, imaginative and original legal reasoning’.

Both publicly and privately Crisp espoused a view, which he called `his creed’, that any charter of human rights should be accompanied by a corresponding charter of social duties. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he was compassionate when the occasion called for it; for example, in 1970, he went out of his way to discharge his duties beyond the strict requirements of his office when he settled a claim for damages from his hospital bed. In 1966-68 he was royal commissioner investigating fluoridation of public water supplies; his report achieved nationwide respect at a time when debate on the subject was often heated. He was knighted in 1969.

Interested in libraries, Crisp served (1956-77) as chairman of the Tasmanian Library Board, overseeing extensive development of the State’s library administration. He represented Tasmania (1958-82) on, and was chairman (1973-82) of, the Australian Advisory Council for Bibliographical Services. A founding member (1960-71) of the council of the National Library of Australia, he was chairman in 1971. He was president (1964-66) of the Library Association of Australia. In 1963 he visited North America on a Carnegie Corporation of New York travel grant to study specific aspects of law and library administration. The LAA presented him in 1977 with the Redmond Barry award for outstanding service. In 1980-83 he was on the interim council of the (National) Museum of Australia, Canberra.

Crisp had been captain of the university’s Rugby Union football club in 1933, and later became patron of the club and of the Tasmanian Rugby Union. A keen cruising yachtsman and fly fisherman, he acted as consultant to various anglers’ associations, and collected rare books on fishing which he eventually donated to the National Library. He was interested in classical music and a supporter of the Friends of Music, a group which from 1958 arranged concerts in Hobart in association with the Musica Viva Society of Australia. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, Sir Peter died on 13 February 1984 in Hobart and was cremated.

His brother Patrick attended Burnie convent school, St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, Sydney, and The Friends’ School, Hobart. Enlisting in the AIF on 10 November 1939, he sailed to Britain, where he trained in ciphering. In April-August 1941 he served at Tobruk, Libya, with the 9th Division’s Intelligence Section. He returned to Australia in March 1942 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in June. On 15 January 1943 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart, he married with Catholic rites Margaret June Seager, a schoolteacher. From July 1943 he was a cipher officer in the Northern Territory. His AIF appointment terminated on 7 September 1944. He studied law at the University of Tasmania (LL B, 1948) and was admitted to the Bar on 3 September 1948. After working in private practice with Page, Seager, Doyle & Bethune, Hobart, in 1952 he joined the family firm Crisp, Crisp & Hudson, at Burnie.

In 1967-80 Crisp was a magistrate for the north-western division of Tasmania. He simplified procedures in the Burnie Children’s Court. Held in high esteem as a humane and just magistrate, he often gave those appearing another chance, especially if they were first offenders, and sought help for them from agencies outside the legal system. He served on committees of the local tennis and athletic clubs and on the North Western Football Union. A devout Catholic, he was active in local church affairs. Among his interests were painting and making 8-mm movies. In 1978 he helped to establish the Burnie Art Gallery. He was appointed OBE in 1988. Survived by his wife and their son and three daughters, he died on 2 February 1988 at Swansea and was buried in Burnie lawn cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Tasmanian State Reports (1971), p vii
  • Mercury (Hobart), 15 Feb 1984, p 2
  • Examiner (Launceston), 16 Feb 1984, p 26
  • Advocate (Burnie), 15 Feb 1984, p 3, 1 Feb 1980, p 4, 3 Feb 1988, p 2
  • private information.

Citation details

H. A. Finlay, 'Crisp, Sir Malcolm Peter (1912–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crisp-sir-malcolm-peter-12369/text22229, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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

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