Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Erskine Cleland (1869–1943)

by Howard Zelling

This article was published:

Edward Erskine Cleland (1869-1943), barrister and judge, was born on 7 April 1869 at Beaumont, Adelaide, son of John Fullerton Cleland, registrar of births, deaths and marriages, and his wife Elizabeth, née Glen. Educated at Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1890), Cleland became associate to Judge (Sir) W. H. Bundey. In 1891 he became a partner in Fenn & Hardy; after seven years he entered partnership with Sir Josiah Symon and H. V. Rounsevell which lasted until 1914, when he branched out on his own after financial disagreements with Symon. In 1919 he took his son T. E. Cleland into the firm; Paul Teesdale Smith joined it next year. In 1921-27 it was Cleland (father and son), Holland & Teesdale Smith and in 1927-36 Cleland & Teesdale Smith.

Cleland was a fluent and able advocate. His first reported appearance before the Full Court in 1892 (Hodgkins v. District Council of Burnside) revealed his ability to pick the one point on which a case would turn. It was further illustrated by his argument before the High Court of Australia in Sinclair Scott v. Naughton (1929): after a prolix address by counsel for the appellant, Cleland rose at 12.30 the second day, stated his Statute of Frauds point, answered one question from Judge (Sir) Owen Dixon and sat down at 12.35. The appeal was dismissed. Cleland's appointment in 1912 as a King's Counsel when there was already one in the firm (Symon), was one of only four similar instances in South Australia. He was retained in practically every 'heavy' case, and represented his State before the Privy Council in the South Australia-Victoria boundary case.

In 1925 Cleland lent £23,000 to an investor, Vincent A. Zed, who was subsequently unable to repay the loan. This left Cleland jointly indebted with Zed to a bank for a sum which, if called up, would have rendered Cleland insolvent. For this reason he refused a second offer of a Supreme Court judgeship in 1927. But Cleland paid the debts and in 1936 went on the bench.

For many years Cleland had been 'recognised as the leader of the Bar', but he was 67 and not healthy. However his brain was still agile. In 1938 he was in dissent in two-thirds of the reported decisions in Banco in which he took part. Nevertheless his opinions were respected: claims for damages for collisions at intersections involving 'two way' roads were settled for years, until the relevant statute was amended, on the basis that Cleland's dissenting judgement in Bond v. Goudie (1937) was correct. During his last eighteen months on the bench he was ill and sat infrequently. It is regrettable that so fine an intellect had little time to influence the work of the court.

Cleland was a member of council of the Law Society of South Australia in 1912-17 and 1935-36. He was a noted bon vivant, a witty after-dinner speaker, and a master of the devastating reply delivered with a smile and without change of voice or manner. On 12 April 1893 in Adelaide he had married Edith Mary Auld (d.1928); they had two daughters and a son, all of whom survived him when he died on 1 July 1943; he was buried in St George's cemetery, Magill. A nephew, Sir John Cleland, was an eminent naturalist; another, Sir Donald Cleland, was administrator of Papua New Guinea in 1952-67.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Law Reports, 25 (1892), 37
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 43 (1929-30), 310
  • South Australian State Reports, 1937, 416
  • Australian Law Journal, 10 (1936-37), 46
  • Register (Adelaide), 27 Dec 1912
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 Mar 1936, 2 July 1943
  • G. Loughlin, South Australian Queen's Counsel 1865-1974 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1974)
  • Deputy registrar, note-book for 26-27 Sept 1929 (High Court of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Howard Zelling, 'Cleland, Edward Erskine (1869–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 April, 1869
Beaumont, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


1 July, 1943 (aged 74)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.