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Wolff, Sir Albert Asher (1899–1977)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Sir Albert Asher Wolff (1899-1977), chief justice and lieutenant-governor, was born on 30 April 1899 at Geraldton, Western Australia, and registered as Asher Albert, only son and second of four children of Simon Wolff (d.1914), a Russian-born jeweller, and his wife Bertha Clara, née Shrimski, from London. From an orthodox Jewish family, Albert was educated at Geraldton State and Perth Boys' schools and won a scholarship to Perth Modern School. After serving articles in a legal firm, he was admitted to the Supreme Court on 20 October 1921 and practised at Goomalling and in Perth until appointed crown prosecutor in 1926. On 17 April 1924 at the district registrar's office, Perth, he had married Ida Violet Jackson (d.1953), a schoolteacher.

Wolff prosecuted constables J. G. St Jack and R. H. Regan for murder following the 1926 Kimberley massacre; they were acquitted. In 1929 he was promoted crown solicitor and parliamentary draftsman and won repute for his drafting skills. Taking silk in 1936, he was appointed to the Supreme Court bench in 1938 and became senior puisne justice in 1954. He was praised for his 'clear concise judgement with underlying legal and social reasoning' in Adamson v. the Motor Vehicle Insurance Trust (1956), involving the liability of a lunatic for tort. In February 1959 he succeeded Sir John Dwyer as chief justice and became deputy president of the State Arbitration Court; he was appointed K.C.M.G. in June. Sir Albert was lieutenant-governor of Western Australia from 1968 to 1974.

In the Supreme Court, Wolff attempted to reduce administrative red tape. Some thought him dour, but his ability and courtesy were respected. He was a firm supporter of an independent Bar after it was founded in 1961. Although a professed advocate of law reform and clarification of parliamentary statutes, he consistently supported final appeal to the Privy Council and disagreed with a bill of rights as proposed by the Federal attorney-general Lionel Murphy. Seldom errant in his judgements, Wolff believed in stern retribution or 'a short, sharp salutary lesson'. He was also committed to capital punishment. One of his most contentious criminal cases was the 1961 murder trial of the deaf mute Darryl Raymond Beamish. Wolff pronounced the death sentence, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. After the emergence of fresh evidence, in 2005 the conviction was quashed.

Presiding (1937-38) over a royal commission into youth unemployment and the apprenticeship system, Wolff had recommended improving literacy at the primary level, raising the school leaving age to 15 and reviewing policy and funding for technical education. By singling out the building industry for inadequate training regulations he hastened the passage of the Builders' Registration Act (1939). Wolff's comprehensive 1941 royal commission report on the administration of the University of Western Australia concentrated on financial and administrative matters, although he was critical of academic standards and 'student wastage'. He recommended the appointment of a full-time vice-chancellor and the reconstitution of the senate and convocation, and foreshadowed the introduction of fees. He also served on royal commissions in 1946 (when he criticized the government's purchase of twenty-five unsatisfactory Garratt locomotives) and in 1965 (when he investigated parliamentary salaries). He retired as chief justice on 30 April 1969.

Wolff was a trustee of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia from 1947. As president of the trustees (1954-58), he was thought by some to be conservative, autocratic and uninspired. He was a stubborn litigant against the council at Mosman Park, where he lived. Dark, thickset and of average height, in public he was formal; he wore carpet slippers and a carpenter's apron at home—he was a keen and competent cabinetmaker—and proudly drove a 1964 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. He was a member of the Weld Club.

At St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 8 February 1956 Wolff had married with Catholic rites Mary Godwin (d.1974). Sir Albert died on 27 October 1977 at the Home of Peace, Subiaco, and was buried in the Jewish Orthodox section of Karrakatta cemetery after a State funeral. The son and daughter of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • P. Brett, The Beamish Case (Melb, 1966)
  • M. A. White, The Community and Post-School Education (Perth, 1981)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 11, 1937-38, p 563, vol 33, 1959-60, p 216, vol 43, 1969, p 251
  • Law Society of Western Australia, Brief, 4, no 6, Dec 1977, p 62
  • West Australian, 7 Dec 1956, p 5, 30 Apr 1969, p 9, 7 May 1974, p 3, 28 Oct 1977, p 1, 1 Nov 1977, p 15, 28 Jan 1995, p ‘Big Weekend’, p 2, 10 June 2000, p 1
  • Independent (Perth), 27 Apr 1969.

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Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Wolff, Sir Albert Asher (1899–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wolff-sir-albert-asher-13253/text5707, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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