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Menzies, Sir Douglas Ian (1907–1974)

by John M. Williams

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

Douglas Ian Menzies (1907-1974), by unknown photographer

Douglas Ian Menzies (1907-1974), by unknown photographer

Monash University Archives

Sir Douglas Ian Menzies (1907-1974), judge, was born on 7 September 1907 at Ballarat, Victoria, second child and eldest son of Ballarat-born parents Francis Menzies, Congregational minister, and his wife Annie Wilson, née Copeland. Frank and (Sir) Robert Menzies were his cousins. Douglas moved with his family to Tasmania, and was awarded a bursary to Samuel Clemes's Leslie House School, Hobart; he later attended Hobart and Devonport high schools, and was dux of the latter. Proceeding to the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1928; LL.M., 1969), he won the Jessie Leggatt scholarship (1927), and the J. B. Nunn scholarship and Supreme Court Judges' prize (1928). In 1929, at Queen's College, he was awarded the oratory medal endowed by the William Quick Club. Menzies was to become patron (1966) of the club and to provide funds for the continuation of the award. He was president of the Law Students' Society of Victoria in 1930-31.

Completing his articles with E. C. Rigby, Menzies was admitted as a solicitor on 1 May 1930. Due to the Depression, he postponed his application and was not admitted to the Bar until 16 February 1932, after which he read in the chambers of E. H. Hudson. During the 1930s Menzies developed a practice in commercial and taxation law, gaining a reputation as a 'junior with great promise'. His ability to master sophisticated arguments and issues, coupled with his enormous capacity for work, made him one of the leading advocates of his generation. On 18 December 1936 at the Presbyterian Church, Canterbury, he married Helen Jean Borland (d.1966), who was also the child of a clergyman.

With Bernard O'Dowd, Menzies wrote Victorian Company Law and Practice (Melbourne, 1940), a text that became the standard in the field. In 1941-45 he acted as secretary to the Defence Committee and the Chiefs of Staff Committee; his legal training enabled him to formulate submissions to the War Cabinet and Advisory War Council in a way which earned the 'warmest praise'. Meanwhile, he lectured in procedure, evidence and company law at the University of Melbourne.

When World War II ended, Menzies' legal practice expanded rapidly. In 1948-49 he represented the State of Victoria in the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council, London, in the Bank nationalization case. He took silk on 22 November 1949. Over the next nine years he made fifty appearances in the High Court. A member of a small Australian Bar that established itself at the Privy Council, he travelled to London almost every year to argue appeals from Australian jurisdictions. Later in life, he expressed his hope that the ties with the Privy Council would be preserved, as a means of 'giving fresh life to organic links which are rooted in history, in tradition, in loyalty, and in the common endeavour'. Menzies' constant opponent and companion in London was (Sir) Garfield Barwick. The two became lifelong friends. In Newton v. Federal Commissioner of Taxation (1958), Menzies inflicted on Barwick his greatest defeat before the Privy Council.

The Boilermakers' case in the High Court (1956) tested Menzies' skill in advocacy. He knew that, to win, he would have to reverse Chief Justice Sir Owen Dixon's strong view on the doctrine of the separation of powers. After rejecting Menzies' argument, Dixon paid him the compliment of saying that he had caused him to change his thoughts on a paper he was to deliver at Harvard University, but, Dixon added, 'the alterations are, of course, minor'. Menzies argued the appeal unsuccessfully in the Privy Council.

Menzies was a director (1948-58) of the Australasian Temperance and General Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd. In 1954-57 he was an honorary area commissioner of Toc H, Victoria. President of the Law Council of Australia in 1956-58 and of the Medico-Legal Society of Victoria in 1957-58, he chaired the Victorian Bar Council in 1958. He was to be president of the National Heart Foundation of Australia (1965-66) and of its Victorian division (1961-62).

Sir William Webb retired from the High Court in 1958. The Federal government chose Menzies to fill the vacancy from 12 June. Newspaper reports noted his family connexion with the prime minister, but the appointment occasioned no controversy. Menzies was sworn in on 25 July and appointed K.B.E. three months later. In February 1963 he was sworn of the Privy Council. In 1964 he sat in London on a number of cases.

Menzies arrived on a bench that was dominated by Dixon. As Menzies himself noted, 'To differ from him was a course always taken with hesitation and never without foreboding'. He sat with Dixon for six years until Dixon was succeeded by Barwick. By disposition Menzies was conservative, and many of his judicial opinions reflected that conservatism, though he brought to his deliberations openness and logic. As a judge, he often had a 'unique perspective on things'. One example was his judgement in Dennis Hotels Pty Ltd v. State of Victoria (1960), a case which involved the validity of two types of victualler's licence under section 90 of the Constitution. Menzies drew a 'strange' distinction, holding one licence valid and the other not. While his judicial ability was considerable, his mark on Australian law was not as striking as that of some of his contemporaries.

Menzies' personality offered much to an institution whose workload and solemnity could tend to boredom. His wit and humour during argument often helped relieve the monotony of a long day's sitting. It was a humour that was not without its edge. A solicitor-general once finished part of his address to the court with the words, 'That concludes the first branch of my argument'. Menzies rejoined, 'would not ''twig" be a more appropriate word?' As something of a raconteur, he entertained his colleagues with his considerable knowledge of English literature and poetry, which he could recall at will. He was described as the 'laughing Cavalier' of the High Court. The dinners he organized were a highlight of the court's austere corporate life. When dressed in his formal judicial garb, Menzies 'conjured up an impression of the Regency and the world of nimble wit'. His dark hair and youthful face belied his age. He sparkled, and had the ability to fill a room.

A council-member (from 1966) of Monash University, Sir Douglas Menzies was installed as its second chancellor in April 1969. He was described as an 'ideal Chancellor—wise, urbane, dignified and influential; detached from day-to-day affairs but deeply concerned with the long-term development of the university'. In 1972 he was made an honorary bencher of the Inner Temple, London. At the annual dinner of the New South Wales Bar Association, held on 29 November 1974, Menzies collapsed. He died that night in Sydney Hospital of coronary vascular disease and was cremated; his son and three daughters survived him. Kevin Connor's portrait of Menzies is held by Monash University.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (Melb, 1986)
  • Australian Law Journal, Feb 1975, p 99
  • Monash University Law Review, 2, Sept 1975, p 1
  • Melbourne University Law Review, 20, 1995, p 273
  • Bulletin, 17 Sept 1958
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2, 4 Dec 1974.

Citation details

John M. Williams, 'Menzies, Sir Douglas Ian (1907–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/menzies-sir-douglas-ian-11109/text19779, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 August 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

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