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Mansfield, Sir Alan James (1902–1980)

by John Greenwood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Alan James Mansfield (1902-1980), chief justice and governor, was born on 30 September 1902 at Indooroopilly, Brisbane, third son of Edward Mansfield (d.1905), a district-court judge from England, and his wife Margaret Elizabeth, née Bird, who was born in Queensland. Sir James Mansfield (1733-1821), chief justice of common pleas in England, was his great-great-grandfather. Awarded scholarships to Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and St Paul's College, University of Sydney (LL.B., 1924), Alan represented his college in rowing and Rugby Union football.

On 22 July 1924 Mansfield was admitted to the Queensland Bar. He and another junior Tom Lehane rented chambers—which Mansfield described as a 'broom cupboard'—at 27 Adelaide Street, Brisbane, Queensland's first 'Inns of Court'. Finding his early months in practice 'unbelievably tough', he regularly pawned his watch on Mondays and redeemed it on Fridays if someone paid him a fee. His pawnbroker, Mark Isaacs of George Street, gradually became his friend.

Mansfield supplemented his income by private tutoring and by lecturing part time at the Central Technical College. Undefended divorce provided the staple of the junior Bar. Briefs, tied in red tape and marked in guineas, appeared more frequently. Mansfield attributed his success in the matrimonial jurisdiction to the moustache he had grown to make himself look older. Years later he shaved it off in order to appear younger. Unfortunately, his long-unshaven upper lip developed a painful rash, so the moustache returned and remained for the rest of his life.

When the Depression reduced the number of his clients, Mansfield thought of giving up the law and began to study accountancy. He 'worked like a demon' on the few briefs that came to him. In July-August 1931 he appeared for P. L. Goddard and Frederick Reid, two of the four defendants in the Mungana case (the others were William McCormack and E. G. Theodore). By securing a verdict in their favour, he rose to prominence and his practice burgeoned. At the Presbyterian Church, Stanthorpe, on 16 December 1933 he married Beryl Susan Pain, née Barnes, a 29-year-old divorcee. On 17 May 1940, at the age of 37, he was appointed to the Supreme Court bench. Described as vigilant, shrewd, conciliatory and 'a good analyst of evidence', he also chaired (1942-44) the Land Appeal Court.

In 1945 the Federal government chose Mansfield as a member of the Australian commission of investigation into war crimes and nominated him for the United Nations War Crimes Commission, London. He was chief Australian prosecutor (1946-47) at the trials of war criminals in Tokyo before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Back in Brisbane, he was appointed senior puisne judge in March 1947. As chief justice from 9 February 1956, he presided over a court whose resources were stretched by a substantial increase in litigation, and he sought advice from (Sir) Leslie Herron on how to make his fellow judges work harder. In his spare time he held office in numerous cultural, charitable, community and sporting organizations.

On 25 January 1957 the illness of Governor Sir John Lavarack required Mansfield to act as administrator, an office he was to hold until March 1958. A large number of people urged him to refuse royal assent to the Gair government's University of Queensland Acts amendment bill (introduced in March 1957). This legislation established appeal boards (with government-nominated chairmen) to review complaints by staff against appointments, promotions or dismissals, and was widely seen as threatening academic freedom. At this time Mansfield was also warden (1956-66) of convocation at the university. He gave assent to the bill, but the Nicklin ministry repealed (1957) the sections of the Act relating to the boards. In 1958 Mansfield was appointed K.C.M.G.

On 21 March 1966 Mansfield was sworn in as governor of Queensland. Appointed K.C.V.O. (1970), he served until 20 March 1972. The University of Queensland, of which he was chancellor (1966-76), awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1970. His ready courtesy made him a popular public figure. Throughout his career he maintained his friendships. The group with which he had first played poker in 1940 met for regular games until his death. In the 1960s he accepted invitations to speak at the Young Men's Hebrew Association because the requests came from Isaacs. Sir Alan died on 17 July 1980 at Benowa, Surfers Paradise, and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife, daughter and one of his two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (ed), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • Australian Law Journal, 22 Mar 1956, p 646
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 31 Aug 1940, 28 Jan 1966, 3 Dec 1976, 18 July 1980
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

John Greenwood, 'Mansfield, Sir Alan James (1902–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mansfield-sir-alan-james-11053/text19669, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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