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Herron, Sir Leslie James (1902–1973)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Sir Leslie James Herron (1902-1973), chief justice, was born on 22 May 1902 at Mosman, Sydney, second of six children of native-born parents Henry Herron, insurance clerk, and his wife Emily Ethel, née Downie. Leslie was educated at the Church of England Preparatory School, Mosman, Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1924). He obtained second-class honours, despite being an enthusiastic athlete, oarsman and footballer who played (1922-25) first-grade Rugby Union as breakaway for Western Suburbs Football Club.

Admitted to the Bar on 28 August 1925, Herron read with R. C. Bonney and built up a successful practice (mainly in common law) on the Northern Circuit. He spoke to juries 'in a down-to-earth manner which they could understand' and in consequence 'snatched innumerable verdicts'. At St James's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 6 January 1930 he married Andrée Lorna, daughter of Frank Leverrier, K.C.; they lived at Wollstonecraft until building a home at Castle Cove in 1960. Taking up golf, he played off a handicap of nine at his best and was president (1944-73) of the Australian Golf Club.

Herron was an acting District Court judge in February 1939 and took silk on 20 December. Elevated to the Supreme Court bench on 10 February 1941, he sat mainly in criminal and civil causes, attempting 'to keep the balance between wartime needs of the Executive and the rights of the individual'. He received a death threat in December 1948 for having sentenced Charles Ivan le Gallien to life imprisonment for patricide; given police protection, Herron played golf with his bodyguard. In 1958 he served as royal commissioner, inquiring into the auditor-general's statements concerning Abram Landa, the minister for housing.

Devoting time to the administration of sport, Herron was chairman (1933-39) and president (1943-56) of the New South Wales Rugby Union, foundation chairman (1948) of the Australian Rugby Football Union and chaired the International Rugby Football Board in London in 1957. He was also president of Sydney Grammar School Old Boys' Union (1948-50) and of the New South Wales Amateur Swimming Association (1949-64), and a member of the New South Wales Olympic Council and the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust (chairman 1970-72).

As senior puisne judge, Herron was acting chief justice (from March 1962) during the illness of H. V. Evatt and was confirmed in office on 25 October. Although he was no great jurist, he brought to his office 'a robust common sense in the enunciation of principles and a broad humanity of approach'. He claimed that 'long and intimate experience with the daily work of this Court . . . and my varied activities in life . . . may have endowed me with that even greater quality of a Judge, namely, sound judgment'. At the Bar he had eschewed appellate work and as chief justice did not relish it, but he presided over the Full Court with great authority.

In administering the business of a rapidly expanding judicature, Herron sought to prevent delays and was grieved that 'litigation resulting from death or bodily injury by motor vehicles has tended to overwhelm the Court'. He was an energetic chairman (from November 1961) of the Law Reform Committee; many of its recommendations were adopted by the Law Reform Commission and embodied in the far-reaching Supreme Court Act of 1970 which 'directed the fusion of law and equity' in an attempt to make litigation 'just, quick and cheap'. Upheld by his Christian faith, Herron conducted his court with consideration, dignity and mercy, especially towards unrepresented appellants. He found the chief justice's private garden at the Supreme Court a retreat where he could 'ponder over cases' or practise his golf swing and putting.

Herron headed appeals for St Vincent's and the Mater Misericordiae hospitals, the National Heart Foundation, the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, the Central Methodist Mission, the Salvation Army and the Bush Children's Hostels Foundation of New South Wales. As president of the State branch of the St John Ambulance Association, he was appointed a knight of the Order of St John in 1964. A Freemason, he was worshipful master (1966-67) of Lodge Royal Empire and a past junior grand warden (1969) of United Grand Lodge of New South Wales. He was named 'Father of the Year' and made an honorary citizen of Grafton in 1963, appointed C.M.G. in 1964 and K.B.E. in 1966, and received an honorary LL.D. (1972) from the University of New South Wales.

'A splendid companion—interested, interesting and with a lively sense of humour', Herron was a member of the Australian, Australian Jockey and the Royal Automobile clubs. He loved veteran cars and travelling in trains, and surfed regularly in summer. Known to his bowling mates as 'Chook', he belonged to the City and Northbridge bowling clubs, and to the Dead End Kids Bowling Club which raised money for charity. He was a 'big man with a commanding presence and a strong personality'—six feet (183 cm) tall, weighing over fourteen stone (90 kg), with thick white hair. In an occasional address (later broadcast), he condemned as a lawyer the trial of Jesus: a 'legal travesty, leading to judicial murder, swift and pitiless'.

On reaching what he described as 'the age of statutory senility', Sir Leslie retired in May 1972 and began working on a scheme for free legal aid. He had been appointed lieutenant-governor in April 1972 and was administering the government when he died of acute leukaemia on 3 May 1973 in St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst. Accorded a state funeral, he was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife and daughter survived him. A portrait of Herron by Graeme Inson is held by the Supreme Court, one by H. A. Hanke by the University of Sydney, and two by Esmé Bell by the Australian Golf Club and Herron's family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Bennett, Portraits of the Chief Justices of New South Wales 1824-1977 (Syd, 1977)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 8 Aug 1973, p 9
  • New South Wales Weekly Notes, 79, 1962, p iii
  • Australian Law Journal, May 1973, p 282
  • State Reports, New South Wales , 1974, 1, p viii
  • Rugby News, 12 Mar 1973, p 3
  • Sydney Grammar School, Sydneian, Nov 1973, p 10
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28 Oct 1962
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Dec 1939, 3 Dec 1948, 19 Dec 1951, 11 Nov 1961, 4 Nov 1962, 23 Aug 1963, 1 Sept 1965, 1 Jan 1966, 2 Mar 1967, 12 Apr, 2 Aug 1970, 30 Aug 1972, 7 May 1973
  • Sun (Sydney), 22 Aug 1963, 29 Jan 1987
  • Herron papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Herron, Sir Leslie James (1902–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/herron-sir-leslie-james-10492/text18613, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 April 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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