Sir Francis Villeneuve Smith, Third Chief Justice of Tasmania, 1870-1885
Author: J.M. Bennett, R.C. Solomon
Publisher: The Federation Press
This is the final in a long list of “Lives of Australian Chief Justices” which have come from the pen of Dr. Bennett, this time, in conjunction with Dr. Solomon.
I have found all these studies to be enthralling to read, for different reasons, and this one is no different.
Any history that relates to the practice of the law is, to put it mildly, interesting.
Sir Francis deserves greater recognition in the profession than has occurred, having been Crown Solicitor, Solicitor General, Attorney General, State Premier, puisne Judge and Chief Justice of Tasmania. Indeed he was the first person in Australia to be both Premier and Chief Justice.
He was, by birth, part Haitian which gave him darker skin than others, providing some of his detractors with ammunition to deride him by several epithets which were not only untrue but completely unwarranted.
His success at the Bar provided ample reason for him to be widely respected. It would seem that he had a quick temper which, on more than one occasion, caused him trouble. As with many of the early judges, the press would often take sides, either with the judge or against him, and there were always detractors who must have made his life a misery at times. But particularly as a Judge and as Chief Justice, he denied his detractors any fuel for their behaviour by ignoring it. Imagine repeated articles denigrating you, in a daily newspaper.
Not a great deal of information has survived from which we can determine his honour’s skill but the authors have found some material which shows that he was very astute in considering English authorities and applying them when necessary, bearing in mind that there must not have been many legal libraries in Tasmania at the time. The material referred to demonstrates impartiality, fairness and outstanding respect from the Bar.
His honour had two brothers who were also admitted as barristers. Neither of them enjoyed the same degree of success and their behaviour led them into trouble, being of a matrimonial or financial nature. Remaining aloof as a judge must be difficult enough, but trying to help family caused conflict which could have prevented his advancement, although it does not seem to have done so.
Sir Francis is little known even in his own State and the authors make a valid point, in my view, in suggesting that there should be some form of memorial to him, even now, as, I suggest, a means of encouraging future lawyers to find out more about him.
One cannot help but enjoy reading about the lives in the law that preceded ours. As an example in this book, the public would have little knowledge of how hard and demanding life at the Bar can be. Indeed I know prospective Readers who propose to move to the Bar because they think they can work their own hours. Those of us who have, or have had, busy practices, know that this could not be further from the truth. Similarly a lot of people remain under the misapprehension that judicial life is undemanding and does not require long hours of work.
This book demonstrates, once again, how busy a life some people live, occupying a variety of positions within the law and often, in different pursuits. Imagine trying to be a State Premier and simultaneously maintaining a practice as Attorney General and, apparently, a limited private practice at the Bar.
To conclude therefore, I urge any practitioner with the slightest interest in Australian legal history to read this book and the 16 studies preceding it.