The controversial career of John Walpole Willis is re-evaluated in the first comprehensive study of his legal career. Willis, the fifth judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court of New South Wales, served in three colonies, and in each place he wrestled with the role of the law in a rapidly-changing society. In Upper Canada, he confronted the colony's transition from an oligarchy into a nascent democracy; in his next posting, in British Guyana, he was responsible for helping the colony implement, and absorb the consequences of, the abolition of slavery. New South Wales, his final posting, presented unique legal problems as it evolved from a penal colony into a free settlement, and the new settlement at Port Phillip began to grow.
To these troubled societies, Judge Willis brought an acute legal mind and a stormy personality – he was twice dismissed from his post by the local Governor. Earlier studies have tended to view him either as a wronged genius or a vain, deranged misfit. Max Bonnell, an experienced lawyer and Adjunct Professor of Law at Sydney University, has rediscovered Willis as a contradictory figure – Australia's first activist judge, who was nonetheless a stickler for the letter of the law; the author of several remarkably humane and enlightened judgments, who was capable of endorsing appalling cruelty; and a man who insisted upon decorum and propriety, yet was undone by his own conspicuous failures of self-control.
“Willis’ story was ripe for the telling, its central protagonist is a character of colour and drama who attracted many a cause célèbre. As one journalist of the time recorded, “as there was no theatre in town, Judge Willis was reckoned to be ‘as good as a play’”. Max’s book is also peppered with amusing titbits from history, from the unlikely first train accident to Willis’ family connection to Queen Elizabeth II. While the facts alone paint a fascinating picture, this book is not just a recital of facts; it is accompanied by regular and incisive analysis, a credit to the author’s perceptiveness and ability.” Read Launch Speech...
From the Launch Speech by The Hon T F Bathurst AC, Chief Justice of New South Wales
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Grimaces on the bench
1. Great disrespect and insult
2. The satisfaction of a gentleman
3. An attachment to Lady Mary
4. It is intended to commit that Jurisdiction to Mr Willis
5. You have not got your Equity Court yet
6. I dare say his Object will appear
7. An inferior situation
8. Little Insects
9. Dissolved, annulled, vacated and made void
10. No unfriendly feelings
11. We cannot be bound
12. He devours a pig or goat daily
13. My shattered constitution
14. The expression of my mortification
15. Neither of my colleagues particularly love me
16. Destroying the web of sophistry
17. Very gross rudeness
18. The most malignant and diabolical dispositions
19. A mean, lickspittle business
20. The gentlemen of the profession
21. A friend to free discussions
22. A vast and hitherto neglected, oppressed and deeply injured multitude
23. High and responsible situations
24. Circumstances have occurred
25. Over a glass of grog
26. The necessary directions
27. I like a clamour
Appendix A: Secretaries of State for War and the Colonies, 1827-1846
Appendix B: Cases heard by Judge Willis in the Supreme Court of New South Wales*
Judgment is a good word. We speak of people with too little judgment, but rarely of people with too much; we like that people are non-judgmental and do not like it when they are; as we know that we must come to judgment, so we practise by passing it on others.
Judges are special creatures. Most of us judge something before coming to an assessment. A skilful and honest judge must take the other road, assessing circumstances before reaching judgment. John Walpole Willis had each of these four qualities; he had skill, he had an honesty, he had the ability to assess, and he certainly had the means to reach a conclusion. Yet he lacked utterly that magical ingredient, the virtue the Romans knew as pietas, not a formal piety but a propriety of form and of substance. Read full review...
David Ash, Francis Forbes Society Newsletter, 34, Autumn 2017
This is a rather remarkable book about a rather remarkable judge. Walpole Willis was a judge in the colony of New South Wales in the first half of the 19th century. By all accounts he was a person of an irascible nature but with an acute legal mind. He appears to have had considerable legal ability, albeit, at times, applied to the extreme. That was especially evident in his penchant for declaring the invalidity of the actions of his brother judges. He was a person of great humanity which was unfashionable for the times, but also known to be capable of great cruelty. Some described him as a wronged genius, others as a vain, deranged misfit.
Willis had an unusual legal career as a judge. He was appointed to three colonial courts, the last being in New South Wales. He was twice dismissed from office by the local Governor. In this work Max Bonnell has sought to unravel the mystery around this unusual and often contradictory judge. As Mr Bonnell identifies, Judge Willis’ judicial career spanned many difficult geographical locations where the system of justice was often just embryonic and social and political climate was in a state of constant flux. Nevertheless, it was not surprising that a judge who reportedly engaged in haranguing counsel, other judges, politicians and the press from the Bench, soon came into conflict with almost everybody wherever he was posted.
This an extremely well written book. It is well researched and carefully curated. The historical content is detailed but not cumbersome. Moreover, it is an important reminder of the human qualities of judges; that they possess the fragilities that we all do, to a greater or lesser degree, and they are often called upon to perform their duties in difficult political and social situations. This work is another excellent contribution to the chronicling of Australian Legal History, of which the Federation Press leads and champions.
Queensland Law Reporter – 24 February 2017 –  07 QLR
*Appendix B: Cases heard by Judge Willis in the Supreme Court of New South Wales
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Published 15 February 2017
Publisher The Federation Press
Australian RRP $89.95
International Price $81.78
Law - Legal History
Australian History / Studies