Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Neil Richard Mackerras (1930–1987)

by David Ash

This article was published:

Neil Richard Maclaurin Mackerras  (1930-1987), barrister, solicitor and advocate for Aborigines, was born on 20 May 1930 at Vaucluse, Sydney, third of seven children of Sydney-born parents Alan Patrick Mackerras, electrical engineer, and his wife Catherine Brearcliffe, née MacLaurin.  Ian Mackerras was his uncle.  Neil was educated at St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1951; LL.B, 1956).  While studying, he worked for the Mutual Life & Citizens’ Assurance Co. Ltd.  He married Elizabeth Margaret Moultrie Connolly on 13 November 1954 at the Holy Family Catholic Church, Lindfield.

Admitted to the Bar on 8 February 1957, Mackerras became a leader in the field of rent-control litigation and co-authored the last three editions of the standard text Landlord and Tenant Practice and Procedure in New South Wales (1958, 1966, 1971).  Land law provided his income but the ideal of the land itself and his Roman Catholicism were his capital.  An occasional correspondent in the Sydney Morning Herald, he once wrote to it of 'the most dangerous of our modern vices—materialism, atheism and Communism'.

Mackerras’s values explained his role in the nascent Democratic Labor Party.  After leaving the Liberal Party of Australia, he was the DLP’s first branch secretary in New South Wales, a member of the State executive and four times an unsuccessful candidate for parliament.  In 1972 he resigned at least partly because he believed that the DLP had fulfilled its objective of keeping the Australian Labor Party out of Federal office until it was considered fit to form a government.  He also supported the New England New State Movement and (anti-communist) Asian immigration.

Deeply concerned by the lack of legal representation for Aboriginal youths at Moree, Mackerras impetuously accepted an appointment there, as a solicitor (admitted 9 November 1973) with the Aboriginal Legal Service.  His enthusiasm was intense but the move had a serious impact on his family and together they left Moree in 1975.  Living at Kellys Plains near Armidale, Mackerras hoped to establish a local Bar.  The idea failed and he returned to being a solicitor, at Uralla, south of Armidale.  For the remainder of his life, he worked either as a private practitioner determined—with considerable financial sacrifice—to assist Aborigines or as a public employee charged with the same task.  He identified closely with his underprivileged clients; when an Aboriginal boy appealed successfully to a judge against the gaol sentence imposed by a magistrate, so outspoken was Mackerras on the youngster’s behalf that a condition of the bond imposed in lieu of custody was that the boy not associate with him.

In a newspaper interview in 1975 Mackerras expressed the controversial view that Aborigines should be able to manage their own affairs, adding that he 'began to be a human being in Moree'.  A friend, John Goldrick, described him as the Don Quixote of the Mackerras clan.  He died of myocardial infarction on 1 August 1987 at Armidale and was buried in the local cemetery.  Predeceased (1980) by his wife, he was survived by his five daughters and four sons.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Priest, Scholars and Gentlemen, 1986
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 61, no 11, 1987, p 758
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 1957, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1972, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1975, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 August 1987, p 10

Citation details

David Ash, 'Mackerras, Neil Richard (1930–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 May, 1930
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 August, 1987 (aged 57)
Armidale, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.