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Allan Victor Maxwell (1887–1975)

by John Kennedy McLaughlin

This article was published:

Allan Victor Maxwell (1887-1975), judge, was born on 12 May 1887 at Balmain, Sydney, younger of twin sons and eighth child of native-born parents Francis Augustus Maxwell, letter-carrier, and his wife Amelia Charlotte, née Ledger. Victor was educated at Fort Street Model School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1909; LL.B., 1913). On 8 May 1913 he was admitted to the New South Wales Bar. Practising at University Chambers, he regarded Robert Darlow Pring as a mentor, whose precept of 'relevancy' he adopted. Before juries, in the Common Law jurisdiction in which he appeared chiefly as a trial lawyer, Maxwell was equally as relevant and successful. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 22 October 1919 he married Sadie Margaret Lawless.

Appointed an acting District Court judge in 1927, Maxwell took silk on 19 March 1929. From that year he occasionally acted as a judge on the Supreme Court. Although he was not active in constitutional litigation, he submitted—with six other K.C.s—an unsolicited address to Governor Sir Philip Game in 1932 concerning vice-regal powers to seek new advisers and so resolve the crisis with Premier Lang. On 9 August 1934 Maxwell was elevated to the Supreme Court bench. He sat mainly at common law and from 1950 was also judge in Admiralty. By 1955, as senior puisne judge, he frequently presided over appeals in all jurisdictions. His judgements, laconic and unadorned, went immediately to the heart of the issues.

Maxwell's judicial career was interrupted by service as a royal commissioner on several inquiries, Federal and State. The most significant was his inquiry (1952-54) into the liquor laws in New South Wales. Sir Garfield Barwick recalled the liquor commission as a 'witch-hunt of individuals' with 'something of the reputation of the Star Chamber'; he also contended (while defending a witness charged with perjury) that the commissioner's appointment was technically defective. After hearing many witnesses and undertaking comparative investigations abroad, Maxwell produced a monumental report in February 1954. It silenced critics and stimulated a referendum on hotel trading-hours which led to legislation allowing for more civilized drinking practices and facilities throughout the State.

Deciding to retire to pursue commercial interests as chairman of Amalgamated Television Services Pty Ltd (ATN-7), Maxwell was farewelled at a ceremonial court-sitting in August 1955. Chief Justice (Sir) Kenneth Street described him as 'possessed of great legal learning, an acute mind, swift in decision, and with a wealth of experience and wisdom'. The solicitor-general Harold Snelling added that, in Maxwell's court, there 'prevailed a subtle blend of dignity and urbanity' in which summings-up for juries were lucid and simple, yet eloquent, and where 'a sparkle of wit, sometimes accompanied by a slight if unconscious twitch of the eye, often enlivened a dull case'. Maxwell's passion for relevance in the conduct of cases was well remembered, as was the impatience he often displayed if counsel transgressed.

Maxwell was a supporter, president (1945-61) and vice-patron of the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales, and also president (from 1959) and a life governor of the Australian National Council of and for the Blind. Through these associations he became a friend of the celebrated Helen Keller. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1967. In his youth he had been an oarsman and later a keen golfer, belonging to the New South Wales Rowing Association and Royal Sydney Golf Club.

Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, Maxwell died on 5 October 1975 at St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. His son Victor had been appointed to the Supreme Court bench in 1974.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Supreme Court of New South Wales (Syd, 1974)
  • G. Barwick, A Radical Tory (Syd, 1995)
  • State Reports, New South Wales, 55, 1955, 'Memoranda'
  • Australian Law Journal, 29, 1956, p 292
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1929, 8 Aug 1934, 13 July 1952, 21, 27 Feb 1954, 23 Feb, 30 Aug, 1 Sept 1955
  • private information.

Citation details

John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Maxwell, Allan Victor (1887–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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