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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Carlisle, Robert Maxwell (Bob) (1936–1994)

by Renn Wortley

This article was published online in 2018

Robert Maxwell Carlisle (1936–1994), solicitor, was born on 20 July 1936 at Caulfield, Melbourne, younger child of New South Wales-born Hazen Pingree Carlisle, cleaner and later printer, and his wife Ruby May, née Glew, a Victorian-born clerk. Bob’s parents separated when he was four. His mother raised the children alone on her small wage as a legal secretary. From Caulfield South State School, Carlisle entered Caulfield Grammar School (1948–53), where he was a sound student, a member of the school magazine committee, and a sergeant in cadets. As vice-captain of the second XVIII football team, small, redheaded ‘Bluey’ Carlisle proved a tenacious and effective rover. In 1954 he enrolled in law at the University of Melbourne (LLB, 1961) but failed and repeated nearly half the prescribed subjects before finishing his degree.

After completing articles with Freeman & Pitts, Carlisle was admitted to practise in Victoria on 1 March 1962. Employed as a solicitor in the busy Geelong office of the labour law firm Holding Ryan & Redlich from 1964, he represented workers tirelessly, specialising in workplace injury cases. After several years he was made a partner, transferring in 1974 to the Melbourne office. The firm experienced a painful split in 1975. He emerged as a founding partner of a new labour law firm, Ryan Carlisle Needham Thomas (Ryan Carlisle Thomas from 1983), committed ‘to social justice and the objectives of the organised labour movement’ (Ryan Carlisle Thomas n.d.).

On 20 March 1970 at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church, East Melbourne, Carlisle had married Anne Naylor, a private secretary. Early in life Carlisle rejected all forms of religious practice and ceremony, but he agreed with Anne that a church setting for their formal wedding was preferable to a registry office. They lived at Torquay until 1974, then Elwood, and, from 1984, Kooyong. A socialist, he was dedicated to supporting the voiceless and underprivileged, and to using his legal skills to help right wrongs and remedy social inequality. He built up a large practice acting for plaintiffs claiming workers’ compensation, or damages at common law for personal injuries. His successes included cases establishing the liability of employers for asbestos exposure, and of medical practitioners for professional negligence.

Carlisle and his firm acted for many trade unions, drafting rules, advising on disputes within and between them, representing them in disputes with employers, and helping to establish award-based industry superannuation funds. Despite his heavy workload, he was noted for giving every client his full attention. He knew the relevant law and kept his knowledge current, preparing each case meticulously and delivering detailed instructions to the barristers he briefed. He expected equivalent effort from them, not the ‘once over lightly’ (Ashley et al. 1994) approach many counsel took at that time.

Though undemonstrative, Carlisle had the gift of making and keeping friends. In professional life he treated everyone alike, whether clients from the factory floor; senior union or corporate leaders; legal colleagues or opponents; and arbitrators or judges. He managed his many commitments skilfully and in negotiations he was hard but scrupulously fair. His manner was measured, patient, calm and (sometimes infuriatingly) even-handed, and reasonable. In private, however, when barracking for his beloved South Melbourne (later Sydney Swans) football team, he was occasionally heard shouting in rage at the match replay on television.

Early in life Carlisle had restored meticulously a classic MG, and he later owned several stylish sports cars. At forty he learned to ski, joining his wife, a keen skier, and their children on alpine holidays. In 1982 a skin lesion on his back was diagnosed as a melanoma, with a poor prognosis. Realistic about the possibility of death, he continued working. He endured severe treatment with courage and dignity, suffered painful recurrences of illness, and survived for twelve years. In 1993 he resigned his partnership in the firm, but continued as a consultant. He worked on an urgent union rules amendment during his short final stay in hospital. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 8 December 1994 in hospital at Malvern and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Ashley, David, Sarah Carlisle, Robin Harrison, and Orm Thomas. Tributes at Robert Carlisle’s funeral. Unpublished audio recording, 1994. Private collection
  • Carlisle, Anne. Personal communication
  • Caulfield Grammar School Archives. Academic Card of R. M. Carlisle
  • Dyett, Frank. Personal communication
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Leading Counsel in Fight on Work-Related Cancers.’ 19 December 1994, 62
  • Ryan Carlisle Thomas Lawyers. ‘Our History.’ n.d. Accessed 26 June 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Thomas, Orm. Personal communication
  • University of Melbourne Archives. Student Card for R. M. Carlisle

Additional Resources

Citation details

Renn Wortley, 'Carlisle, Robert Maxwell (Bob) (1936–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 20 September 2020.

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