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Deffell, George Hibbert (1819–1895)

by H. T. E. Holt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

George Hibbert Deffell (1819-1895), judge, was born on 30 May 1819 in London, the third son of John Henry Deffell, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Mackenzie. He was educated at Harrow in 1832-37 and played in its cricket eleven. He graduated at Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1842; M.A., 1845). He was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1839 and called to the Bar on 20 November 1846. On 10 July 1850 in London he married the 17-year-old Julia Gross of Ipswich, Suffolk: their only child, John Thomas, was born on 6 June 1851.

He arrived in Sydney on 6 January 1856 with his wife and child in the La Hogue and was admitted to the Bar of the New South Wales Supreme Court on 4 February. In directing Deffell's admission, Sir Alfred Stephen quoted a letter from Lord Campbell, a close friend of Deffell and his family, who believed that 'from his legal proficiency, honourable character, and agreeable manners, [Deffell] will be a valuable acquisition to the Sydney bar'.

In July he unsuccessfully applied for the chair of constitutional law or modern history at the University of Sydney, and on 25 August was appointed a commissioner for reporting upon claims to grants of land. In December he unsuccessfully applied to be appointed crown prosecutor in the Moreton Bay District, but on 1 April 1857 was appointed master in Equity of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. In June 1865 he was persuaded to accept the appointment of chief commissioner of insolvent estates and, as an economy measure, to continue to carry on the mastership temporarily until the administration of the Equity Court was amended. He became chief commissioner on 30 June and prepared a draft amendment bill but the government delayed dealing with it and he soon found that he could not perform both offices. He then tried to resign as master, persisted in his attempts and finally had to support them with the opinions of the judges that it was impossible for him to continue 'without a denial of justice pro tanto to suitors and to creditors and insolvents'. Only then was he relieved of his position as master in May 1866.

In the last half of 1887 the unprecedented course was taken by the government of passing three separate Acts to enable Deffell to perform different functions in the Supreme Court. Two of these Acts were required because an insufficient number of Supreme Court judges were available to constitute a full court of three to hear a number of appeals then pending and great hardship was being suffered by some litigants. An Act was quickly passed appointing Deffell to assist in disposing of sixteen of these appeals and he was sworn in as a temporary judge for that limited purpose on 15 August 1887. After only six appeals had been dealt with, another judge became unavailable through illness. No further appeals could be heard and, while Deffell could find nothing to do, the government had to appoint a barrister to hold a circuit court. Another Act was then rushed through parliament to give him further powers of a puisne judge until 28 December 1887, by which time the new bankruptcy bill was expected to be in force.

Deffell was largely instrumental in bringing about the much needed reforms in bankruptcy law because he considered the forty- six-year-old Act which he had had to administer a scandal and disgrace to the jurisprudence of the country. He was acknowledged as a most experienced administrator of the bankruptcy law, as well as a painstaking and capable equity man, and his accomplishments were lauded in parliament when the bankruptcy bill was debated. In consequence a third Act, the Bankruptcy Act of 1887, provided for his appointment as the first judge in bankruptcy and a judge of the Supreme Court; he was sworn in on 3 January 1888.

Ill health compelled Deffell to retire on 9 November 1889. He had lived for many years at Bayfield, Hunter's Hill, on the river front where his stone jetty was renowned for blackbream fishing. Two days after he retired, he and his wife left in the Arcadia for England, followed by a launch chartered by many legal friends whose cheers farewelled him at the Heads. The hope had been expressed that, when his health was restored, he might return to serve the colony with his wealth of experience and legal knowledge, but he remained in England and died at Tunbridge Wells on 21 September 1895.

Select Bibliography

  • Government Gazette (New South Wales), 26 Aug 1856, 3 Apr 1857, 30 June 1865
  • S. A. Donaldson letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • documents formerly held by F. H. Deffell (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

H. T. E. Holt, 'Deffell, George Hibbert (1819–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/deffell-george-hibbert-3386/text5127, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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