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Sir Thomas Sydney Frost (1916–1997)

by Stephen Henningham

This article was published online in 2023

Sir Thomas Sydney Frost (1916–1997), judge, and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea (PNG), was born on 13 February 1916 at Ascot Vale, Melbourne, son of New South Wales-born Thomas Charles Frost, railway draughtsman, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Andrea, formerly Eastaway, née Fredericks. Both parents died of tuberculosis, his father in December 1919, and his mother in May 1927. Sydney and his two younger brothers were raised by their recently married half-sister Maisie Thelma Gillard, Mary’s daughter from her first marriage.

After attending Ascot Vale and Essendon high schools, Frost completed his final year of secondary studies in 1932 on a scholarship to Melbourne Boys’ High School, gaining several honours level results and winning free entry to the University of Melbourne (LLM, 1937). There he achieved exhibitions in history and law, served as president of the Law Students’ Society, and was an active debater. He was admitted to practice in May 1938 and worked for the Melbourne solicitor Maurice Kelly. On 25 January 1943, at St Anne’s Catholic Church, East Kew, he married his employer’s sister, Dorothy Gertrude Kelly, a clerk serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Volunteering for service in World War II, Frost had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 15 August 1941. He was selected for the Field Security Service, with which he operated in Australia and—as a warrant officer, class two, in V Field Security Section—in New Guinea (July–November 1944) and Bougainville (November 1944–May 1945). Back in Australia, he was posted to the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. During his army days he was described as having a quiet and pleasant manner, as well as possessing tact, sincerity, and self-reliance. Demobilised on 21 November 1945, he practised as a barrister in Victoria where he read for (Sir) Oliver James Gillard, becoming Queen’s Counsel in September 1961. He served as counsel assisting the royal commission on the first collapse of Melbourne’s King Street Bridge (1962–63), and became a judge in the Victorian County Court in July 1964.

Frost was appointed to the Supreme Court of Papua and New Guinea in November 1964, and senior puisne judge in July 1970. After acting as chief justice from March 1974, he was confirmed in the role in February 1975. In September he was knighted, coinciding with PNG achieving full independence. Conscious of his position as a senior jurist during a period of political and administrative transition, he sought to maintain the standing of the Supreme Court, and to understand the local cultural and historical contexts of the cases before him. Sentencing a postal worker for theft in 1965, he expressed sympathy, noting that the accused had a customary obligation to help support his fellow villagers, and that low pay rates encouraged PNG workers to break the law. Ultimately though, he considered that judges should have regard for customary practice only during a transitional period leading to the application of a uniform criminal code. He defended his decision to wear full court dress during the swearing-in ceremony marking PNG’s Independence Day, but he anticipated that PNG’s judges would eventually decide how they dressed on formal occasions. Furthermore, he advocated that outstanding local lawyers should be eligible for appointment to the bench with only five years’ experience, rather than the ten required in Australia. His ambition for PNG to establish a law commission was realised in May 1975. Barristers in PNG remembered him as ‘reserved and self-effacing, yet helpful and highly competent’ (Griffin 1997, 14). In November 1977, on the occasion of Frost’s retirement as chief justice, Prime Minister (Sir) Michael Somare commended his ‘keen insight’ (Papua New Guinea Post-Courier 1977, 3) into striking a balance between introduced law and customary law.

In March 1978 the Australian government appointed Frost to chair an independent inquiry into Australia’s policies on whales and whaling. Public and political sentiment, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s own views, strongly favoured ending whaling in Australia. Fraser recalled that, notwithstanding such broad support, he needed an independent inquiry to counter opposition from the Western Australian premier, Sir Charles Court, in whose State stood Australia’s one remaining whaling station. The path to ending whaling was eased on 1 August 1978 when Cheynes Beach Holdings Ltd, which ran the station, announced it would close, claiming that the inquiry itself had caused demand for its products to decline. In its report of December 1978 the inquiry concluded ‘that Australian whaling should end, and that, internationally, Australia should pursue a policy of opposition to whaling’ (Inquiry into Whales and Whaling 1978, 206). It was a milestone in marine consultation, with environmentalists commending Frost’s integrity, thoroughness, and dedication. With bipartisan political support, the government adopted the report’s recommendations, which informed the Whale Protection Act 1980.

Frost took up several other appointments during the latter part of his career. He served as a royal commissioner and chairman on an inquiry into land purchases by the Victorian Housing Commission (1979–81), chaired an inquiry into an aircraft accident at Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport (1980), and was the first president of the federal Medical Services Review Tribunal (1979–84).

From his modest younger days when he had earnt pocket money as a caddy, Frost ultimately became a member of the prestigious Australian and Royal Melbourne golf clubs. As well as golf, he enjoyed lawn bowls, drama, and classical music, but his main interests were his family and the law. He died on 20 April 1997, and his funeral was conducted at St Peter’s Anglican Church, East Melbourne, where he and his family had worshipped. His remains were interred at the Boroondara cemetery, Kew. Predeceased by his wife, he was survived by his children Elizabeth, Jeremy, and Andrew.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Judge Criticises Papuan Pay Rates.’ 5 June 1965, 7
  • Griffin, James. ‘Judge Helped to Forge PNG Law.’ Australian, 12 May 1997, 14
  • Commonwealth of Australia. Whales and Whaling. Vol 1, Report of the Independent Inquiry conducted by the Hon. Sir Sydney Frost. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1978
  • Kaye, Henrietta. ‘Judge Set Whaling Moratorium.’ Age (Melbourne), 9 May 1997, C2
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX61380
  • Ottley, Bruce L., and Jean G. Zorn.Criminal Law in Papua New Guinea: Code, Custom and the Courts in Conflict.’ American Journal of Comparative Law 31, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 251–300
  • Papua New Guinea Post–Courier. ‘Chief Justice—Time for Change.’ 14 February 1975, 4
  • Papua New Guinea Post–Courier. ‘Farewell for Sir Sydney.’ 22 November 1977, 3
  • Pash, Chris. The Last Whale. North Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Press, 2008
  • Sligo, Graeme. The Backroom Boys: Alfred Conlon and Army’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, 1942–46. Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2013

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephen Henningham, 'Frost, Sir Thomas Sydney (1916–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/frost-sir-thomas-sydney-32428/text40218, published online 2023, accessed online 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

13 February, 1916
Ascot Vale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

20 April, 1997 (aged 81)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

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.

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