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Menhennitt, Clifford Inch (1912–1979)

by William Kaye

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

Clifford Inch Menhennitt (1912-1979), judge, was born on 30 October 1912 at North Fitzroy, Melbourne, eldest of four children of Victorian-born parents Frederick William Inch Menhennitt, manufacturing chemist, and his wife Mabel Clara, née Wilkins. Cliff attended Moreland State School and Scotch College. He matriculated with first-class honours in history and in economics, gained several scholarships and entered Ormond College, University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1933; LL.M., 1935). In 1933 he won the Supreme Court Judges' prize and the E. J. B. Nunn scholarship. On 1 May 1935 Menhennitt was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He was articled to W. B. Pearce of Alexander Grant, Dickson & Pearce, in which he later became a partner. In 1942-44 he served as a Commonwealth assistant-director of road transport.

At Scotch College chapel on 26 October 1940 Menhennitt had married with Presbyterian forms Elizabeth Lois (d.1975), sister of his close friend Howard Norman. They remained childless, and enjoyed shared interests in music, art and architecture. He retained his association with the university where he lectured (1935-38 and 1945-47) in constitutional law, and served as a member (1941-65) of the standing committee of convocation, warden (1965-68) of convocation and a member (1968-73) of council.

As a barrister-at-law (from 26 July 1946), Menhennitt read in D. M. Campbell's chambers and quickly gained recognition for his scholarship and competence. In 1948 he was briefed as junior counsel for the Commonwealth government in the Bank nationalization case before both the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council. He subsequently took on many suits involving interstate transport and Commonwealth employees' compensation issues. Gazetted a Q.C. for Victoria in 1957 and for New South Wales in 1958, he appeared in constitutional cases before the High Court and the Privy Council. His practice extended over wide areas of civil law, in which his reputation for thoroughness of preparation and clarity of presentation and expression were often favourably commented upon by opposing counsel. He was a member (1965) and vice-chairman (1966) of the Victorian Bar Council, and an executive-member and treasurer (1965-66) of the Law Council of Australia.

On 27 April 1966 Menhennitt was appointed an acting-judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He was confirmed in office on 17 October. His application to his responsibilities was marked by scholarship, industry, thoroughness in research of historical authorities, and development of legal doctrines to meet changing social and economic conditions. Although by temperament he was quick in thought and expression—as well as physical movements—as a trial judge his patience and courtesy with counsel and witnesses appeared unlimited. He speedily identified the basic issues between litigants. After working during the luncheon recess and into the early hours of the morning, he frequently delivered his well-considered judgement immediately upon the conclusion of the trial, thereby avoiding delays and uncertainty for contending parties.

Menhennitt's zeal for the supremacy of the rule of law and for the protection of the rights of the individual was evident when he adjudicated conflicts between the state and the citizen. He developed and reformulated several old common law doctrines. Foremost, perhaps, was his ruling in R. v. Davidson (1969) that an abortion was lawfully justified if it were (a) 'necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or her physical or mental health (not being merely the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth)' and (b) 'in circumstances not out of proportion to the danger to be averted'. Known among lawyers as the Menhennitt ruling, it became binding in all cases of a person tried in Victoria for having unlawfully used an instrument with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman.

Throughout thirteen years of judicial office, Menhennitt loyally served the law, regardless of his own convenience and well-being. A member of the Supreme Court library committee, he initiated and encouraged the extension of the collection to include works of historical interest. He also served on the Chief Justice's Law Reform Committee, and as a member of the Victoria Law Foundation did much to advance its standing. Menhennitt belonged to the Australian Club. His short vacations were spent walking along the foreshore of the south coast of New South Wales where he gained considerable knowledge of local history. He died of hypertensive heart disease on 29 October 1979 at his North Balwyn home and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $963,937.

Select Bibliography

  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 76, 1948, p 1, 79, 1950, p 497
  • Australian Law Journal, 40, 29 July 1966, p 106, 31 Oct 1966, p 215
  • 54, no 3, 1980, p 107
  • Victorian Law Reports, 1969, p 667, 1979, p vii
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Oct 1966
  • Scotch College (Melbourne) Archives.

Citation details

William Kaye, 'Menhennitt, Clifford Inch (1912–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/menhennitt-clifford-inch-11108/text19777, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 February 2019.

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

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