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Ernest David Roper (1901–1958)

by R. Else-Mitchell

This article was published:

Ernest David Roper (1901-1958), judge, was born on 1 March 1901 at Orange, New South Wales, eighth of twelve children of native-born parents Walter James Roper, a draughtsman in the Department of Lands, and his wife Hannah Marie, née Gray. The family moved to Armidale in 1902 and to Mosman, Sydney, in 1916. Educated at Armidale District and North Sydney Boys' High schools, David won the Barker scholarship in mathematics. At the University of Sydney (B.A., 1921; LL.B., 1925), he graduated in arts with first-class honours in mathematics and philosophy, and was awarded the university medal in each subject.

Admitted to the Bar on 29 August 1925, Roper steadily built up a sound practice in crown lands, valuation, Equity and income tax matters. At St Clement's Anglican Church, Mosman, on 22 December 1930 he married Elizabeth Isabel Daniel; they were to remain childless. He was Challis lecturer in Equity and company law (1928-36) at the university and secretary (1935-37) of the Council of the Bar of New South Wales (New South Wales Bar Association from 1936). The Commonwealth government retained him as counsel to assist the royal commission on taxation. Its commissioners, Sir David Ferguson and (Sir) Edwin Nixon, paid tribute in their final report (1934) to his 'invaluable assistance in the consideration and framing of the reports and in dealing with the many constitutional and other legal problems'.

Following the retirement of George Herbert Pike, Roper was appointed to the Land and Valuation Court as deputy-judge from 2 February 1937. He became the sole judge on 25 May. Owing to a decline in the number of cases, he frequently acted as a Supreme Court judge between 1937 and 1940. His appointment as a Supreme Court judge in 1940 was backdated to 25 May 1937. On the bench Roper proved an immediate and conspicuous success: he quickly earned the respect of his fellow judges, the legal profession, and the litigants who appeared before him—often without legal representation. He was equally at home in matters of Equity, statute law and common law, and handled cases with expedition and a minimum of formality. He was, as a colleague said after his death, 'no over-speaking judge' and attracted no attention by public utterances in court.

In the diversity of his judicial functions Roper resolved many contentious issues of public importance: the award of the Archibald prize to (Sir) William Dobell in 1943 when the judge laid down the essential criteria for a portrait; the Pye brothers' challenge (1945-56) to the validity of the New South Wales government's policy of acquiring land for war-service settlement at its 1942 value; and the 'Red Book' cases (1947-48) involving a dispute over certain ecclesiastical practices followed by Arnold Wylde, the bishop of Bathurst. In these and many other cases Roper's decisions were upheld when appealed against in higher courts. Indeed, it was rare that any of his decisions was set aside.

In 1947 Roper succeeded H. S. Nicholas as chief judge in Equity and as probate judge. He was also called on to sit with the chief justice and other judges as the Full Court to hear appeals and as the Court of Disputed Returns to resolve electoral issues.

Roper devoted valuable time to extra-judicial functions. In 1942 he was a member of the prime minister's Committee of National Morale. A fellow (from 1942) of the senate of the University of Sydney and deputy-chancellor in 1946-52, he presided over the Sydney University Law Society for many years from 1946. In addition, he was a director of the United States Educational Foundation in Australia and of Prince Henry Hospital. Roper was a gregarious man with a wide circle of friends and admirers. He was tall and slight in build, and invariably courteous, modest and discreet in manner. A member of the Union and University clubs, he enjoyed nothing more than a game of snooker with his colleagues.

Survived by his wife, Roper died of cerebrovascular disease on 28 June 1958 in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. The gates at North Sydney Boys' High School were named (1962) after him, as were prizes at the University of Sydney for students in Equity and corporate law.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Storey, History of North Sydney High School 1912-1962 (Syd, 1962)
  • Australian Law Journal, 32, 21 July 1958, p 96
  • State Reports, New South Wales, 1958, p iii
  • Sydney Law Review, 3, Mar 1959
  • R. Else-Mitchell, 'Mr Justice Roper and the Land Jurisdiction', Australian Law Journal, 70, Nov 1996, p 902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan 1937, 18 Feb 1948, 1, 2 July, 29 Aug 1958
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 29 June 1958
  • Bulletin, 9 July 1958, p 14.

Citation details

R. Else-Mitchell, 'Roper, Ernest David (1901–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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