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Alfred Theodore Conybeare (1902–1979)

by Michael Kirby

This article was published:

Alfred Theodore Conybeare (1902-1979), judge, was born on 30 April 1902 at College Park, Adelaide, only child of Alfred Henry Conybeare, salesman, and his wife Marion Forrest, née Eglinton. In 1907 the family moved to Sydney where Alfred senior was employed at David Jones Ltd's store. Theo was educated at North Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1924; LL.B., 1927). Although he entered articles of clerkship to a solicitor, he was admitted to the Bar on 6 June 1928. At the district registrar's office, Chatswood, on 28 December 1929 he married Ena Myra Rice, a schoolteacher whom he had met at university.

Conybeare's practice involved extensive work in damage cases in the Supreme and District courts, and before the Workers' Compensation Commission of New South Wales. His most notable brief was as junior to F. A. Dwyer, K.C., who appeared for (Sir) William Dobell when the award to Dobell of the 1943 Archibald prize was challenged.

Soon after Conybeare took silk in 1951, he was appointed chairman of the Workers' Compensation Commission from 8 October. As a judge, he was unpretentious, courteous, and a stickler for gentlemanly conduct and legal technicality. He took pains to understand the facts (including the complex medical evidence involved in many cases) and awarded compensation under the statutory provisions which were often quite technical. During his term the commission's work increased enormously and the number of judges rose from three to six. In 1966 he presided over the move to new premises in Macquarie Street, overlooking Sydney Harbour. Funded by a levy on workers' compensation insurance, these superior quarters created some envy.

Taking long service leave in 1962, Conybeare visited North America and Europe. He described how 'the scales were struck' from his eyes as he realized the inadequacy of mere monetary awards in compensation cases without provision for rehabilitation; he was also impressed by the Canadian system where insurance companies were not involved in these cases. On his return, he called for more attention to be given to the rehabilitation of injured workers. In 1969 he began an official inquiry into the feasibility of establishing such a system in New South Wales that led to a major report delivered in December 1970. Yet, his proposals to terminate common law rights (notably to sue employers for negligence) and to increase compensation payments were criticized by the legal profession and by the Labor Council of New South Wales. To Conybeare's profound disappointment, this opposition ensured that no action was taken, apart from the establishment of the commission's vocational rehabilitation department.

At his farewell ceremony in April 1972 Conybeare was praised as a 'wise and kindly judge'. Disenchanted, he declared that compensation law had been 'stagnant for too long' and lacked 'freshness, innovation, initiative'. After his retirement he was inaugural chairman (1973-75) of the State committee on discrimination in employment and occupation. He belonged to the University Club, continued his interest in literature and tended the garden at his Lindfield home. Survived by his wife and three sons, he died on 27 November 1979 at Greenwich and was cremated. His portrait had been painted by H. Hanke for the Workers' Compensation Commission.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal, Oct 1951, p 403, Feb 1980, p 107, May 1992, p 276
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17, 18 Feb 1971, 28 Apr 1972, 29 Nov 1979
  • Australian, 29 Apr 1972.

Citation details

Michael Kirby, 'Conybeare, Alfred Theodore (1902–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 July 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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