Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Peter Brett (1918–1975)

by Louis Waller

This article was published:

Peter Brett (1918-1975), professor of jurisprudence, was born on 4 September 1918 at Stoke Newington, London, and named Isidore Peter, third child of Jewish parents Alfred Bretzfelder, builder, and his wife Raie, née Prince. Educated at a private preparatory school and at St Paul's School, Hammersmith, at 16 he was articled to Ernest Bevir & Son, solicitors. He graduated with first-class honours from the University of London (LL.B., 1939). Having changed his name by deed poll to Peter Brett, on 30 September 1939 he married Doris Theresa Moses at the register office, Paddington; they were later divorced. Brett served with the British Expeditionary Force in Europe (1940) and in the West African Force (1941-43); as temporary captain, Royal Fusiliers, he was again in Europe between 1944 and 1946. From that year until 1951 he was a legal assistant in the Office of the Treasury Solicitor, London. Meantime, on 18 August 1949 at St Basil's Anglican Church, Artarmon, Sydney, he married Margaret Hingst Stobo, an Australian nurse whom he had met in London.

In 1951 Brett was appointed senior lecturer in law at the University of Western Australia (LL.M., 1954). Between 1952 and 1954 he published several articles in which he revealed his characteristic clarity, pungency and creativity, as well as a critical judgement which did not always genuflect to legal authority. Appointed senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne in 1955, Brett became reader in 1961, the first Hearn professor of law in 1963 and professor of jurisprudence in 1964. He was Ezra Ripley Thayer teaching fellow (1958-59) at Harvard University (doctorate of juridical science, 1960) in the United States of America, and a visiting professor at the University of Texas (1959 and 1967), and at both the University of Colorado and York University, Toronto, Canada (1973).

Short in stature, Brett had tight, greying curls and a mobile face, dominated by flashing eyes which were magnified by thick spectacles. He was a fluent and sometimes eloquent speaker, and a stimulating, though occasionally disconcerting, teacher. His chief interests were criminal law, evidence, administrative law and legal philosophy, and he taught and wrote extensively in these subjects. He was generous in sharing ideas, and encouraged his colleagues and students to undertake interdisciplinary research.

In his writing Brett re-examined the philosophical and psychological bases of the law—particularly the criminal law—in the light of modern learning, and undertook a searching reappraisal of the aims of the law and its relation to moral values. His major books were An Inquiry into Criminal Guilt (Sydney, 1963) and An Essay on Contemporary Jurisprudence (Sydney, 1975). A keen sense of injustice led him to challenge the outcomes of three murder trials: the Tait case (1962) in Victoria, the Beamish case (1966) in Western Australia and the Ratten case (1972-73) in Victoria.

As president of the Federation of Australian Universities Staff Associations, Brett secured the settlement of its long-standing dispute with the University of Tasmania (which had followed the dismissal of Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr), and maintained a commitment to academic freedom and autonomy through his service on F.A.U.S.A.'s committees. He also chaired the academic sub-committee of the professorial board, University of Melbourne. Brett enjoyed music, literature and the theatre. In his later years he expressed no formal religious beliefs, but as a Freemason played a prominent part in the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. He died of a coronary occlusion on 9 May 1975 at his Ivanhoe home and was cremated with Masonic forms; his wife, their three sons and adopted daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Waller, Summons (Melb, 1975)
  • Australian Law Journal, 49, May 1975
  • Vestes, 18, no 2, Nov 1975
  • Times (London), 13 May 1975
  • private information.

Citation details

Louis Waller, 'Brett, Peter (1918–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bretzfelder, Isidore Peter

4 September, 1918
London, Middlesex, England


9 May, 1975 (aged 56)
Ivanhoe, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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