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Webb, Sir William Flood (1887–1972)

by H. A. Weld

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir William Flood Webb (1887-1972), judge, was born on 21 January 1887 in South Brisbane, third of five children of William Webb, an English-born storekeeper, and his wife Catherine Mary, née Geaney, from Ireland. William's three brothers died in infancy and his mother in 1891. Next year his father married her sister Bridget; they had three children. In 1894-97 William attended St Kilian's school, South Brisbane. After William Webb senior died in 1898, Bridget took the children to the home of her sister Margaret and her husband Martin Crane on their sheep-property near Warwick. William attended St Mary's convent school, Warwick, conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. Recognizing his ability, his teachers, notably Mother Kevin and Sister Mary Vincent, encouraged him and gave him extra tuition; he won a State scholarship. Having gained second place in the Queensland Public Service examination, he began work in the Home Secretary's Department on 3 February 1904.

Acting on T. W. McCawley's advice, Webb studied law as a means of advancement in the public service. He passed his final Bar examination on 20 May 1913 with the exceptionally high average of 71.5 per cent and on 4 June was admitted to the Bar. Rising rapidly, he was appointed chief legal assistant in the Crown Solicitor's Office in September 1914 and official solicitor to the public curator in February 1916; the role of public defender was added to his duties two months later. On 1 June 1917 he succeeded McCawley as crown solicitor and secretary of the Attorney-General's Department.

When young, Webb was a tall, slim man of serious mien. Over the years he developed into an imposing figure, with a smooth face, a Roman nose, steady brown eyes, black hair and a deliberate, though kindly, manner. As a young man, he enjoyed tennis and golf. He hosted tennis parties at his home—living first at Highgate Hill then Greenslopes and later Holland Park—and always played in long whites and a tie. A devout Catholic, he remained attentive to the duties and teachings of his faith. On 17 March 1917 at the Sacred Heart Church, Sandgate, he had married Beatrice Agnew (d.1970). Her infectious laugh and high spirits provided a fitting foil to his gravity.

One of a group of young lawyers whom Premier T. J. Ryan gathered around him, Webb was appointed solicitor-general of Queensland in April 1922. Under the supervision of the attorney-general, he conducted crown cases in the courts and controlled the crown legal work. He carried out his duties with vigour and enthusiasm, gaining notable successes in the Full Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal with cases involving divorce, income tax, stamp duty, succession duty, and compulsory acquisition and compensation, and with criminal prosecutions and appeals. From the beginning of his term as crown solicitor, he had been involved in the heavy litigation between the Labor government and those opposed to or affected by its actions. One example was a six-day special case resulting from the government's compulsory purchase of the Brisbane tramways; an appeal was lodged with the Privy Council but the case was settled before a hearing took place.

In 1925 Webb was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland and president of the Court of Industrial Arbitration. Next year he began the first of five terms as chairman of the Central Sugar Cane Prices Board. David Marr described Webb as 'cautious' and 'colourless' on the bench—excellent judicial qualities in which he would have taken pride. He was an exemplar of Viscount Radcliffe's prescription for judges: weighty but not ponderous, and learned but reticent. B. H. McPherson noted the moral courage Webb displayed when, sitting in the Full Court, he did not hesitate to reverse decisions by H. D. Macrossan, whom he succeeded in 1940 as senior puisne judge and chief justice. He was knighted in 1942. Ross Johnston depicted his demeanour in court as:

the model of polite, courteous behaviour; he was patient and understanding; he did not easily ruffle, but would sit coolly, unconcernedly through the heated argument, smiling gently, his brown eyes alert and at the end of the proceedings, give a calm reasoned answer to the problem, an answer freed from the temperamental, emotional involvement of the parties concerned.

Like other judges, Sir William took extra-judicial appointments in World War II. He refused the deputy-chairmanship of the Australian Industrial Relations Council, however, because he would have been subject to the direction of a Federal government minister and he believed that his judicial independence would have been compromised. When the government decided in 1942 to establish the council as an independent body, he accepted the post of chairman. In 1943 the government commissioned him to inquire into atrocities committed by Japanese forces in Papua and New Guinea. Next year he reported on the operation of postal, telegraphic and telephonic censorship.

From 29 April 1946 Webb presided over the sittings in Tokyo of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The tribunal consisted of nine, later eleven, judges from the same number of allied nations. Twenty-eight major war criminals were indicted, four more than the number at Nuremberg, Germany. Oral testimony was heard from 419 witnesses but the bulk of the evidence was given in 779 affidavits and 4336 documents. The proceedings took two and a half years and were recorded in a transcript 49,858 pages long. Webb's personal burden was increased by the convention that he alone should speak on behalf of the judges.

Before the I.M.T.F.E. had begun its hearings, Webb called it the most 'important criminal trial in all history'. John Pritchard noted that it developed 'into an enormous affair which dwarfed the activities of its more famous sister-tribunal sitting at Nuremberg'. After Webb and his colleagues handed down their judgement in 1948, seven of the accused applied to the Supreme Court of the United States of America for leave to file petitions for writs of habeas corpus. The court refused the application. In giving his reasons, Justice W. O. Douglas quoted with approval from the separate opinion of Webb and his analysis of the basis of the tribunal and system of law it applied. Pritchard assessed Webb's performance ambivalently: 'To his credit, he was hard-working and endeavoured to be conscientious'. He was 'softly-spoken' yet he intimidated witnesses, attorneys 'and even his colleagues on the bench'. Despite his 'abrasiveness', he could be 'courteous' and there were occasions when 'he displayed considerable sensitivity, particularly in chambers'.

On 16 May 1946 Webb had been appointed to the High Court of Australia. His first case was Nelungaloo Pty Ltd v. Commonwealth, for which he interrupted his sittings in Tokyo and which was heard in the Full High Court in June-July 1947. After returning to the court in 1949, Webb sat in more than fifty important constitutional cases, including the succession of transport cases involving section 92 of the Constitution, the second pharmaceutical benefits case (1949) in which he ruled against the Federal Labor government's legislation, and the Australian Communist Party case (1951) in which he held that an Act by the coalition government of (Sir) Robert Menzies to proscribe the party was invalid. Webb had been accused in 1942 of pro-Labor sympathies but, according to Geoffrey Sawer, they 'never showed in his judgments'.

Appointed K.B.E. in 1954, Webb retired from the High Court on 16 May 1958. He accepted the chairmanship of Electric Power Transmission Pty Ltd and came out of retirement to sit on a number of remuneration tribunals established by the Queensland government. The University of Queensland conferred an honorary doctorate of laws on him in 1967. He died on 11 August 1972 in South Brisbane and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. His four daughters and two sons survived him. Sir William's portrait by Archibald Colquhoun hangs in the High Court building, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949 (Melb, 1963)
  • B. V. A. Röling and C. F. Rüter (eds), The Tokyo Judgment (Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1977)
  • R. Johnston, History of the Queensland Bar (Brisb, 1979)
  • D. Marr, Barwick (Syd, 1980)
  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (Melb, 1986)
  • J. Pritchard, An Overview of the Historical Importance of the Tokyo War Trial (Oxford, 1987)
  • B. H. McPherson, The Supreme Court of Queensland, 1859-1960 (Syd, 1989)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 127, 1971-72
  • Catholic Leader, 3 Sept 1972.

Citation details

H. A. Weld, 'Webb, Sir William Flood (1887–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-sir-william-flood-11991/text21499, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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