Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Obituary - The Hon John Macrossan AC Print E-mail

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John Murtagh Macrossan, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland, passed away aged 78 on Tuesday 5 August 2008. John, who was born on 12 March 1930, was closely involved with the legal profession all of his life. His father, Vincent Macrossan was a leading solicitor in Queensland and was admitted as a practitioner of the Supreme Court of Queensland on 5 December 1905. Vincent founded the Mackay firm Macrossan & Amiet, as well as the firm which later became Macrossan, Byrne & Co. He was elected Mayor of Mackay in 1916. John’s uncles, Hugh and Neal Macrossan, each became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland, the former on 17 May 1940, the latter on 25 April 1946. John was named after his grandfather, who was a member of the Queensland Parliament, and an early advocate of Federation, representing Queensland at the first Federation conference in 1890, along with Samuel Griffith.


John married Margery Newton on 4 January 1961. They had one son Mark, born on 29 December 1961, who became a lawyer practising at the Bar in Sydney, but more recently has devoted time to his interests as a playwright and author.

John’s older brother, Brian, became a Christian Brother and embarked on a teaching career. Now retired in Darwin, Brian was, for a period, headmaster at St Laurence’s College Brisbane during a career that took him to such exotic destinations as Mozambique.

John studied law at the University of Queensland and Exeter College Oxford where he obtained a Bachelor of Civil Laws. After a period serving in articles with his father, John was called to the Bar on 21 December 1951. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1967.

While at the Bar John Macrossan was regularly retained as counsel for the State of Queensland. He acted as counsel in a number of leading cases including Unsworth v Commissioner for Railways (1958) 101 CLR 73, Hall v Busst (1960) 104 CLR 206, Queensland Bacon Pty Ltd v Rees (1965) 115 CLR 266, Schiller v Mulgrave Shire Council (1972) 129 CLR 116, Brisbane City Council v Valuer General (1978) 140 CLR 41, and Melwood Units Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Main Roads (1978) 19 ALR 453.

John Gallagher QC recalled when delivering the eulogy at John’s funeral that, as a barrister, John presented an image of absolute calmness and composure.

John was active in the Queensland Bar Association becoming a committee member in 1965, Vice President in 1974, and President in 1976 occupying that position until 1978.

John Macrossan became a Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland on 4 February 1980 and was Chief Justice from 10 April 1989 until his retirement on 16 February 1998.

He had an insightful mind and was not shy of revealing a well developed sense of humour. At his swearing in as a Justice of the Supreme Court, John somewhat wryly observed that “it could be said that the solicitor’s branch lost me by revealing all too early, and the Bar won me by hiding its secrets from me for a longer period”.

As a judge, John participated in many other leading decisions including King v Coupland [1981] Qd R 121, Chitts v Allaine [1982] Qd R 319, Holts Corrosion Control Pty Ltd v C M L Fire & General Insurance Co Ltd (1983) 3 ANZ Ins Cas 60-559, Riches v Hogben [1986] 1 Qd R 315, and QIW Retailers Ltd v Felview Pty Ltd [1989] 2 Qd R 245.

The current Chief Justice, Paul de Jersey, has described John Macrossan as being a great servant of the law stating:

"He gave the legal system the benefit of his alert mind and brought great dignity to the office of Chief Justice."

John was the Chairman of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting from 1972 to 1978. He maintained a strong interest in education throughout his life. John contributed articles on a variety of topics including “Judicial Interpretation” (1984) 58 ALJ 547, "Queensland Judicial Perspective: A Century On" (1994) 3 Griffith Law Review, and “Griffith and the Constitution’s 100th Birthday” Royal Historical Society of Queensland 1998. He had close links with Griffith University, acting as its Deputy Chancellor from 1985, and Chancellor from 1988. He continued as Chancellor of Griffith University until his retirement in 2000, receiving the Degree of Doctor of the University on 7 April 2001. Ian O'Connor, the Vice-Chancellor of Griffith University, paid tribute to John’s passing stating:

“The successful development of Griffith in the 1990s owes much to the contributions, commitment and leadership of the Honourable John Macrossan during this period.”

17_02.jpgJohn also received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1993 from the University of Queensland.

John acted as Director and Chairman of the Queensland Committee of the Churchill Trust from 1985 to 1992, and was President of the Queensland Art Gallery Society from 1978 to 1982. He was made a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia in 1993.

In appearance John seemed somewhat aloof, perhaps due in part to his height and glasses. But that was quite opposite to the real position. He was unfailingly courteous and polite, had great personal charm and a store of experiences to call on. John was a frequent traveller, particularly to Italy and England, and spoke Italian and French. He and his wife of 47 years, Margery, and Mark enjoyed a strong and supportive family relationship. At his swearing in as Chief Justice, John recorded that his “small but cohesive family has always managed to convey to me a sense of solidarity”.

There are two observations which are appropriate to repeat here, both taken from his valedictory address. The first reflects the real respect and the vision he maintained for the role of the Supreme Court:

“The Court’s mission will be entrusted to those who remain and those who, over the years, will join the Bench. It must always be open to new ideas but yet not driven by every wind that blows.”

The second reflects his constancy after a life in the law:

“My feelings are best summed up by saying that although I now think it is time to leave, if I were to start again in life it is the same career I would choose. I would do it all again”.

To those observations should be added a quote from A. C. Grayling, from his introduction to “The Meaning of Things”:

“Socrates famously said that the unconsidered life is not worth living. He meant that a life lived without forethought or principle is a life so vulnerable to chance, and so dependent on the choices and actions of others, that it is of little real value to the person living it. He further meant that a life well lived is one which has goals, and integrity, which is chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible to a human agent caught in the webs of society and history.”

John Murtagh Macrossan’s life was indeed a life well lived.

Don Fraser QC


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