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Sir George Edward Rich (1863–1956)

by J. D. Merralls

This article was published:

Sir George Edward Rich (1863-1956), judge, was born on 3 May 1863 at Braidwood, New South Wales, son of Canon Charles Hamor Rich and his wife Isabella Tempest, née Bird, both London born. He attended Sydney Grammar School, where he shared the Knox junior prize (1875) with Banjo Paterson. At the University of Sydney (B.A., 1883; M.A., 1885) he studied classics under Professor Charles Badham and was a founder of Hermes and of the boat club. He was admitted to the Bar on 10 March 1887. By the mid-1890s he had a leading Equity practice from Selborne Chambers. On 15 December 1894 at Paterson he married Elizabeth (Betha, d.1945), daughter of Richard Steer Bowker.

Rich was a popular member of the Bar; his many pupils included (Sir) Frederick Jordan. He maintained his association with the university as Challis lecturer from 1890 until he took silk in 1911. He supported the foundation of the Women's College and served on its council. Rich drafted the constitution (1902) and was an active committee-member of the Council of the Bar of New South Wales. In the 1890s he was the joint-author of text-book commentaries on the Companies Act and with (Sir) John Harvey and Arthur Newham of The Practice in Equity (Sydney, 1902), superseding an earlier collaboration with W. G. Walker. With R. K. Manning he established and edited The Bankruptcy and Company Law Cases of New South Wales. It was to the Equity jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of New South Wales that he was appointed acting judge (1911) and judge (1912).

On 5 April 1913 Rich was appointed a justice of the High Court of Australia, following the resignation of Albert Piddington whose nomination had attracted allegations of bench-stacking in the Commonwealth's favour. Attorney-General Billy Hughes selected Rich as a non-political lawyer with no known leaning towards Commonwealth or States. The appointments of (Sir) Frank Gavan Duffy, (Sir) Charles Powers and Rich gradually shifted the court's decisions in constitutional cases from doctrines implied from the Federal compact to interpretation in which literal meaning was paramount. None of the three was publicly identified with the Federal cause like (Sir) Isaac Isaacs and Henry Higgins who by 1913 were regular dissenters in constitutional cases. The strict construction of the Constitution preferred by Rich and Gavan Duffy led them to dissent in the wartime case of Farey v. Burvett, in which the Commonwealth's defence power was held to authorize the making of laws affecting domestic affairs. But the new justices not infrequently joined Isaacs and Higgins against Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Edmund Barton to give an expanded operation to the Commonwealth's industrial arbitration power. In 1920 Rich joined (Sir) Adrian Knox, Isaacs and (Sir) Hayden Starke in a judgment in the celebrated Engineers' case written by Isaacs which discarded the doctrines that had underpinned most of the court's previous constitutional decisions. Rich's role was usually that of an urbane accompanist to others more accomplished and industrious than himself. He frequently subscribed to the judgment of a colleague, later abandoning Duffy for Isaacs, though he did not share his Federalist views or condone his assertive style. Rich's own style was simple and elegant and his judgments were often enlivened by shafts of humour.

With (Sir) Owen Dixon, Rich found the perfect exemplar from whom he seldom differed. He was not averse to consulting others, among them Jordan and (Sir) Dudley Williams. After Dixon's departure for Washington in 1942, Rich aligned himself with Williams, upholding the validity of the uniform tax scheme in South Australia v. The Commonwealth (1942) and declaring critical parts of the 1947 Banking Act invalid under section 92 in a departure from views he had espoused in the 1920s and 1930s. Rich resigned on 5 May 1950. It was widely believed that he delayed his retirement to deny the Labor attorney-general H. V. Evatt the selection of his successor.

As royal commissioner, Rich had reported on a disturbance at the Liverpool Military Camp in 1915. In 1922 he was a delegate to the League of Nations and sat on its constitutional, judicial and political committees and on the Nauru mandate sub-committee. Appointed K.C.M.G. (1932) and a privy councillor (1936), in 1937 he represented Australia at the coronation of George VI and sat as a member of the Judicial Committee. In 1940 Rich procured amendment of the Judiciary Act to allow his designation as acting chief justice during Sir John Latham's absence. While Rich's desire for the title amused most of his colleagues, it widened a rift between him and the irascible Starke who was next in seniority.

On 10 November 1950 at St James's Church, Piccadilly, Rich married a widow Letitia Fetherstonhaugh Strong, née Woodward. His old university conferred an honorary LL.D. in August 1952. He died on 14 May 1956 in Sydney and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and a son and daughter of his first marriage survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at about £115,000.

Rich's standing as a judge suffered from his reputation for indolence, but his pithy reasons usually showed a sure grasp of legal principles. Their most serious failing as judgments in an appellate court lay in the lack of development of ideas.

Rich enjoyed company. He was a member of the Australian Club, Sydney, and the London Athenaeum. Fond of travel he was one of the few judges who did not find the High Court's peripatetic character irksome, enjoying especially the steamer voyages to Perth. On his death Dixon commended 'his unfailing good humour, his lively and ready wit, his ever-fresh and always human outlook upon the problems of life and law … his great instinct for realism in the administration of the law, his shrewd penetration, his pungent observations and his great friendliness'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901-1929 (Melb, 1956)
  • J. M. Bennett, A History of the Bar of New South Wales (Syd, 1969)
  • R. G. Menzies, The Measure of the Years (Melb, 1970)
  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Magistrate (Sydney), 1 Dec 1911, p 68, 1 Aug 1912, p 249
  • Australian Law Journal, 10, 15 Dec 1936, p 342, 23, 20 Apr 1950, p 653, 24, 18 May 1950, p 21, 30, 24 May 1956, p 28
  • Sydney University Gazette, Aug 1952
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 96 (1956), p iv
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1912, 20 Dec 1921, 18 Dec 1922, 3 June 1932, 2 Jan 1936, 28 Apr 1950, 16 May 1956
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 6 July 1912, 5 Apr 1913
  • John Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Dixon papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. D. Merralls, 'Rich, Sir George Edward (1863–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 May, 1863
Braidwood, New South Wales, Australia


14 May, 1956 (aged 93)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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