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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ewens, John Qualtrough (1907–1992)

by Carmel Meiklejohn

This article was published online in 2016

John Ewens, n.d.

John Ewens, n.d.

photo supplied by Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department

John Qualtrough Ewens (1907-1992), parliamentary draftsman, was born on 18 November 1907 at Unley, Adelaide, eldest of three children of locally born parents Leonard John Ewens, bank inspector, and his wife Amy Effie, née Qualtrough. Excelling academically, John attended (1920-25) the Collegiate School of St Peter, on a scholarship. At the University of Adelaide he completed the five-year law course in only four years (LLB, 1929) and won the Roby Fletcher prize for logic and psychology and the Stow prize in law. In 1929 he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of South Australia.

Employed by Knox & Hargrave, solicitors, he worked principally in commercial law before losing his job in the Depression. He secured a legal assistant position in the Attorney-General's Department in Canberra in 1933. Profoundly influenced by contact with Sir Robert Garran, Ewens became a significant contributor to organisations that Garran chaired, including the councils of the Canberra University College and Australian National University. In Adelaide on 4 November 1935 he married Gwendoline Wilson.

Exposed early to the gamut of the department’s work, Ewens applied his love of language and the law to parliamentary drafting. His outstanding ability as a drafter was particularly evident in the development of national security legislation during World War II and he was promoted comparatively rapidly. As parliamentary draftsman (1949-70), and at times acting secretary of the department, Ewens put a distinctive and lasting stamp on Australian laws. Unapologetic about his meticulous standards, black-letter style, and rigorous approach to drafter training, he was responsible for vast amounts of important, occasionally controversial, draft legislation. He took personal carriage of the onerous bank nationalisation bill in 1947 and a comprehensive revision of the gargantuan Bankruptcy Act in 1966.

Widely respected for his intellectual integrity, formidable knowledge, logic, creativity, and precision, Ewens was passionate about his craft. In numerous Australian and international government fora he was a leading contributor to the collaborative development of uniform and complementary laws. Recognised as the doyen of drafters, he prepared the widely circulated Bibliography on Legislative Drafting (1968) and was a highly influential member of the 1972 Style Manual committee.

Not always easy to work with, or for, Ewens was protective of his domain and intense in his efforts to have the importance of drafting recognised. He was instrumental in the creation of a separate statutory drafting office in 1970, and that year was appointed the inaugural occupant of the position of first parliamentary counsel. He retired in 1972.

Ewens continued to use his drafting skills in various capacities for the Commonwealth Secretariat, Norfolk Island Administration, and law reform and constitutional commissions. Surprisingly enthusiastic about adopting contemporary ‘plain English’ style, he was excited by the potential benefits of word processing for drafting. Appointed OBE (1955), CBE (1959), and CMG (1971) for services to government and the law, Ewens was belatedly appointed QC in 1984. A book of essays on legislative drafting was published in 1988 to commemorate his eightieth birthday. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died at home in Canberra on 16 August 1992 and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates, no. 43. 26 October 1972, 1981-83
  • Kelly, David St L., ed. Essays on Legislative Drafting: In Honour of J. Q. Ewens CMG, CBE, QC. Adelaide: The Adelaide Law Review Association, Law School, University of Adelaide, 1988
  • Kirby, Justice Michael. ‘Mr J Q Ewens, CMG, CBE, QC.’ Australian Law Journal 66 (December 1992): 870
  • Lyons, Les. ‘A Secretary Looks Back: The Canberra University College 1930-1934.’ Canberra Historical Journal, March 1976, 3-15
  • Meiklejohn, Carmel. Fitting the Bill: A History of Commonwealth Parliamentary Drafting. Canberra: Office of Parliamentary Counsel, 2012

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Carmel Meiklejohn, 'Ewens, John Qualtrough (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 September 2020.

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