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Sir Alan Russell Taylor (1901–1969)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Sir Alan Russell Taylor (1901-1969), judge, was born on 25 November 1901 at Newcastle, New South Wales, fifth son of Walter Durham Taylor, a customs officer from England, and his native-born wife Lilias Martha, née Hewitt. The family moved to Sydney about 1911. Alan attended Fort Street Boys' High School until he was 14. In 1917 he joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a clerk in the Postmaster-General's Department. While studying law at the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1926), he worked in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor's Office until January 1924. He graduated with second-class honours, and was admitted to the Bar on 2 June 1926. Although he was to practise mainly in common law and company law, he also built up a 'considerable practice in Admiralty'. Based in Chancery Chambers from 1926, he moved with his friends (Sir) Bernard Sugerman and E. D. Roper to University Chambers in 1939. Three years later he took rooms in Chalfont Chambers.

At St Philip's Church of England, Sydney, on 25 July 1933 Taylor had married Ceinwen Gertrude Williams, a public servant. In 1936-42, at the university, he was Challis lecturer in legal interpretation. Regularly briefed by the Crown, he increasingly appeared as a junior before the High Court of Australia in leading constitutional litigation, such as the Uniform Tax case (1942). He took silk in October 1943 and presided over the New South Wales Bar Association in 1948-49. Taylor appeared in the High Court for the English-controlled Bank of Australasia as a member of the legal team led by (Sir) Garfield Barwick that successfully challenged the validity of the Chifley government's legislation to nationalize the trading banks in 1949.

'One of the great appellate advocates', Taylor had an incisive mind. He knew where his genial questions were heading—the first seemed harmless, but the last was often unanswerable. In 1950 the Commonwealth briefed him to defend High Court decisions in three cases (Nelungaloo Pty Ltd v. The Commonwealth, Grace Bros Pty Ltd v. The Commonwealth, and Bonython and others v. The Commonwealth) before the Privy Council in London. He won them all—Nelungaloo on a technicality, to the displeasure of Barwick, the opposing counsel. While in London Taylor also appeared before the Privy Council to oppose leave to appeal in the 'Whose Baby' case (Morrison v. Jenkins) and won that, too. Back home, with other leading barristers he suffered a rare defeat in 1951 after attempting to defend the validity of the Communist Party Dissolution Act (1950) in the High Court.

When Taylor was elevated to the Supreme Court bench on 5 May 1952, (Sir) Norman Cowper, a Sydney solicitor, in congratulating him, reflected on their long association and lamented the loss to the Bar of the 'quiet persuasiveness' of his advocacy: 'the effortless flow, the apt phrase, the pleasant voice and manner, the patience, ready wit and genial humour, the ability to draw a fine distinction with convincing lucidity, the wealth of learning at immediate command'.

After Sir Owen Dixon became chief justice, Taylor was appointed to the High Court on 3 September 1952 at the behest of (Sir) Robert Menzies. In the 1950s the States' efforts to protect the railways by imposing charges and taxes on interstate road carriers led to a series of transport cases in the High Court which frequently deemed such legislation unconstitutional. An adherent of free-enterprise doctrines, Taylor believed (with Dixon) that section 92 of the Constitution guaranteed that each individual had a constitutional right to engage in interstate trade: 'it seems clear to me that any impost or tax, or so-called charge, whether levied upon a limited class for special purposes or by way of contribution to a tax for general purposes, which is made payable as a condition of engaging in or carrying on inter-State trade, must offend against s. 92'.

A down-to-earth, no-nonsense man, Taylor was robust in manner and had little time for excessive legalism. Lacking the intellectual approach of Dixon, he preferred to 'decide the case in hand according to accepted principles and was not greatly interested in the organic development of the law'. He was an indefatigable worker who liked to write his judgements on the day that the case closed and in Barwick's court 'undertook more than his share of the burdensome task of producing' the many joint judgements of the court. His colleagues appreciated his wide general knowledge, experience of the law, and 'mastery of constitutional principle and precedent'. As a K.C. he had taken extreme care in preparing his arguments. On the bench, he expected the same standards from counsel appearing before him. When faced with what he considered to be 'a plethora of irrelevancies', he was forthright, and at times impatient and curt with counsel.

Taylor was big, bluff and 'craggy', a good tennis player in his youth and later a keen golfer. He belonged to the Australian, Royal Sydney Golf and Elanora Country clubs, and enjoyed playing snooker at the University Club. In 1955 he was appointed K.B.E. Sworn of the Privy Council by Queen Elizabeth II at Government House, Canberra, on 19 February 1963, he sat on its judicial committee in London for three months in 1967, hearing and disposing of appeals.

Suffering from coronary sclerosis, Sir Alan died of myocardial infarction on 3 August 1969 at his Vaucluse home and was cremated. His wife, and their daughter and son survived him. Barwick considered Taylor to have been 'a most distinguished judge, one of the ablest this country has produced'. He recalled 'the warmth of his friendship, his unfailing good humour, and his ready turn of wit and phrase on all occasions [which made] our daily association with him pleasant and memorable . . . Indeed he was a companionable man—kind, loyal and generous in his friendship'. Brian Blanchard's portrait of Taylor is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Bennett, Keystone of the Federal Arch (Canb, 1980)
  • D. Marr, Barwick (Syd, 1980)
  • G. Fricke, Judges of the High Court (Melb, 1986)
  • Management Newsletter, Oct 1968, p 6
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 118, 1968-69, p vii
  • Australian Law Journal, 43, 29 Aug 1969, p 352
  • Law Council Newsletter, 4, 1969, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Sept 1951, 30 Apr 1952, 5 Aug 1969
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Taylor, Sir Alan Russell (1901–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 November, 1901
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


3 August, 1969 (aged 67)
Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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