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David Gilbert Benjafield (1919–1980)

by Bohdan Bilinsky

This article was published:

David Gilbert Benjafield (1919-1980), professor of law, was born on 5 June 1919 at Killara, Sydney, younger son and fourth child of Vivian Benjafield, surgeon, and his wife Muriel Brooke, née Lovett, both Tasmanian born. David was educated at Sydney Grammar School on a scholarship, but at the age of 15 was stricken by poliomyelitis which left him paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. He matriculated by correspondence.

Prevented from becoming a medical practitioner by his permanent physical incapacity, Benjafield followed his elder brother into the law. In 1941 he entered the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1945); he won numerous prizes, graduated with first-class honours and the university medal, and was admitted to the Bar on 19 February 1945. A member of University Chambers—which included (Justice) Paul Toose and (Sir) Maurice Byers—Benjafield specialized in writing opinions and soon gained a reputation for work of high quality. Although his court appearances were limited by his immobility, he was one of the junior counsel led by H. V. Evatt who appeared in 1948 for the Commonwealth in the Bank Nationalization case.

A tutor of the university's external students, especially ex-servicemen, Benjafield was appointed lecturer in law in 1948. On 10 January that year at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, he married a stenographer Shirley Patricia Murphy. Accompanied by her, he went to England in 1950 and entered Lincoln College, Oxford (D.Phil., 1952), on a scholarship. There his interest was stimulated in administrative law, then virtually unknown in Australia.

Promoted full-time senior lecturer on his return home, Benjafield mainly taught constitutional law, the law of real property and, later, administrative law. An excellent teacher with a quick analytical mind, he was popular with both students and staff. He was quiet, friendly, patient and considerate, and had an endearing sense of humour. Appointed associate-professor (1956) and professor of law (1959), in 1962 he produced with Professor W. G. Friedmann the second edition of Principles of Australian Administrative Law (the only authoritative text on the subject); with a former student (Professor) Harry Whitmore, he published further editions in 1966 and 1971. Benjafield, Toose and Ray Watson compiled Australian Divorce Law and Practice (1968), another standard textbook.

An original member (1966) of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission, Benjafield studied the existing English rules of Supreme Court procedure and adapted them, where appropriate, to local conditions. Like other commissioners, he stressed the need for simplicity, clarity and uniformity in the court's jurisdictions. The Supreme Court Act (1970) reflects ideas that Benjafield had subscribed to since his student days. In 1972-73 he served a further term on the commission. Influenced by work done in Canada, he was convinced of the need for a system of appeals from administrative decisions, but considered that the commission's draft legislation was too narrow. He argued that administrative actions impinged on virtually all individual acts and that bureaucrats should be required to account for their decisions. At the same time, he jealously protected the sovereignty of parliament and the authority of legislation. His recommendation to establish an ombudsman was translated into legislation in 1974, but many of the changes suggested in the commission's 1973 report remained to be implemented.

As dean of law (1968, 1975-77) and a fellow (from 1968) of the university senate, in the 1970s Benjafield guided the development of the Law School and its introduction of doctoral studies. He was a member of the St Ives Pistol Club, and enjoyed chess and reading detective stories. From 1962 he had served on the council of management of the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of New South Wales. In June 1979 he was appointed C.B.E. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 26 April 1980 in Royal North Shore Hospital and was cremated. His portrait by Noel Thurgate is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. and J. Mackinolty (eds), A Century Downtown (Syd, 1991)
  • Australian Law Journal, 54, June 1980, p 378
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Aug 1965, 28 Apr 1980
  • Faculty of Law, University of Sydney, minutes of meetings, 1965-80
  • private information.

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Citation details

Bohdan Bilinsky, 'Benjafield, David Gilbert (1919–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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