Sir John Latham

Latham in 1931
5th Chief Justice of Australia
In office
11 October 1935 – 7 April 1952
Nominated byJoseph Lyons
Appointed bySir Isaac Isaacs
Preceded bySir Frank Gavan Duffy
Succeeded bySir Owen Dixon
Attorney-General of Australia
In office
6 January 1932 – 12 October 1934
Prime MinisterJoseph Lyons
Preceded byFrank Brennan
Succeeded byRobert Menzies
Minister for External Affairs
In office
6 January 1932 – 12 October 1934
Prime MinisterJoseph Lyons
Preceded byJames Scullin
Succeeded bySir George Pearce
Minister for Industry
In office
6 January 1932 – 12 October 1934
Prime MinisterJoseph Lyons
Preceded byJames Scullin
Succeeded byRobert Menzies
Leader of the Opposition
In office
22 October 1929 – 7 May 1931
Prime MinisterJames Scullin
DeputyHenry Gullett
Preceded byJames Scullin
Succeeded byJoseph Lyons
Leader of the Nationalist Party
In office
22 October 1929 – 7 May 1931
DeputyHenry Gullett
Preceded byStanley Bruce
Succeeded byParty dissolved
Minister for Industry
In office
10 December 1928 – 22 October 1929
Prime MinisterStanley Bruce
Preceded byNew title
Succeeded byJames Scullin
Attorney-General of Australia
In office
18 December 1925 – 22 October 1929
Prime MinisterStanley Bruce
Preceded byLittleton Groom
Succeeded byFrank Brennan
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Kooyong
In office
16 December 1922 – 7 August 1934
Preceded byRobert Best
Succeeded byRobert Menzies
Personal details
John Greig Latham

(1877-08-26)26 August 1877
Ascot Vale, Victoria, Australia
Died25 July 1964(1964-07-25) (aged 86)
Richmond, Victoria, Australia
Political partyLiberal Union (1921–1925)
Nationalist (1925–1931)
United Australia (1931–1934)
Ella Tobin
(m. 1907)
EducationScotch College
Alma materUniversity of Melbourne

Sir John Greig Latham GCMG QC (26 August 1877 – 25 July 1964) was an Australian lawyer, politician, and judge who served as the fifth Chief Justice of Australia, in office from 1935 to 1952. He had earlier served as Attorney-General of Australia under Stanley Bruce and Joseph Lyons, and was Leader of the Opposition from 1929 to 1931 as the final leader of the Nationalist Party.

Latham was born in Melbourne. He studied arts and law at the University of Melbourne, and was called to the bar in 1904. He soon became one of Victoria's best known barristers. In 1917, Latham joined the Royal Australian Navy as the head of its intelligence division. He served on the Australian delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where he came into conflict with Prime Minister Billy Hughes. At the 1922 federal election, Latham was elected to parliament as an independent on an anti-Hughes platform. He got on better with Hughes' successor Stanley Bruce, and formally joined the Nationalist Party in 1925, subsequently winning promotion to cabinet as Attorney-General. He was also Minister for Industry from 1928, and was one of the architects of the unpopular industrial relations policy that contributed to the government's defeat at the 1929 election. Bruce lost his seat, and Latham was reluctantly persuaded to become Leader of the Opposition.

In 1931, Latham led the Nationalists into the new United Australia Party, joining with Joseph Lyons and other disaffected Labor MPs. Despite the Nationalists forming a larger proportion of the new party, he relinquished the leadership to Lyons, a better campaigner, thus becoming the first opposition leader to fail to contest a general election. In the Lyons Government, Latham was the de facto deputy prime minister, serving both as Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs. He retired from politics in 1934, and the following year was appointed to the High Court as Chief Justice. From 1940 to 1941, Latham took a leave of absence from the court to become the inaugural Australian Ambassador to Japan. He left office in 1952 after almost 17 years as Chief Justice; only Garfield Barwick has served for longer.

Early life and education

Latham was born in Ascot Vale, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. His father was a prominent citizen, whose achievements as secretary for the Society for the Protection of Animals were deeply respected. John Latham won a scholarship and became a successful student at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne, studying logic, philosophy and law. At one point, he was the recipient of the Supreme Court Judges' Prize. In November 1902, Latham became the first secretary of the Boobook Society (named for the southern boobook owl), a group of Melbourne academics and professionals which still meets.[citation needed]


Naval career

During World War I, he was an intelligence officer in the Royal Australian Navy, holding the rank of lieutenant commander. He was the head of Naval Intelligence from 1917, and was part of the Australian delegation to the Imperial Conference and then the Versailles Peace Conference, for which he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1920 New Year Honours.[1] He grew to dislike Prime Minister Billy Hughes.

Legal career

John Latham in the 1920s
John Latham in the 1920s

Latham had a distinguished legal career. He was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1904, and was made a King's Counsel in 1922. In 1920, Latham appeared before the High Court representing the State of Victoria in the famous Engineers' case, alongside such people as Dr H.V. Evatt and Robert Menzies.

Political career

In 1922, Latham was elected to the Australian House of Representatives for Kooyong in eastern Melbourne. Although his philosophy was close to Hughes' Nationalist Party, Latham's experience of Hughes in Europe ensured that he would not serve under him in a Parliament. Instead, he initially aligned himself with the Liberal Union, a group of conservatives opposed to Hughes; his campaign slogan was 'Get Rid of Hughes'. On Hughes' removal in 1923, he subsequently joined the Nationalist Party (though he officially remained a Liberal until 1925). From 1925 to 1929, he served as the Commonwealth Attorney-General in the Bruce–Page government. He wrote several books, including Australia and the British Empire in which he argued for Australia's place in the British Empire.

After Bruce lost his Parliamentary seat in 1929, Latham was elected as leader of the Nationalist Party, and hence Leader of the Opposition. He opposed the ratification of the Statute of Westminster (1931) and worked very hard to prevent it.[2]

Two years later, Joseph Lyons led defectors from the Labor Party across the floor and merged them with the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party. Although the new party was dominated by former Nationalists, Latham agreed to become Deputy Leader of the Opposition under Lyons. It was believed having a former Labor man at the helm would present an image of national unity in the face of the economic crisis. Additionally, the affable Lyons was seen as much more electorally appealing than the aloof Latham, especially given that the UAP's primary goal was to win over natural Labor constituencies to what was still, at bottom, an upper- and middle-class conservative party. Future ALP leader Arthur Calwell wrote in his autobiography, Be Just and Fear Not, that by standing aside in favour of Lyons, Latham knew he was giving up a chance to become Prime Minister.

The UAP won a huge victory in the 1931 election, and Latham was appointed Attorney-General once again. He also served as Minister for External Affairs and (unofficially) the Deputy Prime Minister. Latham held these positions until 1934, when he retired from the Commonwealth Parliament. He was succeeded as member for Kooyong, Attorney-General and Minister of Industry by Menzies, who would go on to become Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister.

Latham became the first former Opposition Leader, who did not become Prime Minister, to become a minister. He was the only person to hold this distinction until Bill Hayden in 1983.

Judicial career

Latham as Chief Justice in 1945
Latham as Chief Justice in 1945

Latham was appointed Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia on 11 October 1935. From 1940 to 1941, he took leave from the Court and travelled to Tokyo to serve as Australia's first Minister to Japan. He retired from the High Court in April 1952, after a then-record 16 years in office.

As Chief Justice, Latham corresponded with political figures to an extent later writers have viewed as inappropriate. Latham offered advice on political matters – frequently unsolicited – to several prime ministers and other senior government figures. During World War II, he made a number of suggestions about defence and foreign policy,[3] and provided John Curtin with a list of constitutional amendments he believed should be made to increase the federal government's power.[4] Towards the end of his tenure, Latham's correspondence increasingly revealed his personal views on major political issues that had previously come before the court; namely, opposition to the Chifley Government's health policies and support of the Menzies Government's attempt to ban the Communist Party. He advised Earle Page on how the government could amend the constitution to legally ban the Communist Party,[5] and corresponded with his friend Richard Casey on ways to improve the Liberal Party's platform.[6]

According to Fiona Wheeler, there was no direct evidence that Latham's political views interfered with his judicial reasoning, but "the mere appearance of partiality is enough for concern" and could have been difficult to refute if uncovered. She particularly singles out his correspondence with Casey as "an extraordinary display of political partisanship by a serving judge.[7] Although Latham emphasised the need for secrecy to the recipients of his letters, he retained copies of most of them in his personal papers, apparently unconcerned that they could be discovered and analysed after his death. He rationalised his actions as those of a private individual, separate from his official position, and maintained a "Janus-like divide between his public and private persona". In other fora he took pains to demonstrate his independence, rejecting speaking engagements if he believed they could be construed as political statements.[8] Nonetheless, "many instances of Latham's advising [...] would today be regarded as clear affronts to basic standards of judicial independence and propriety".[9]

Latham was one of only eight justices of the High Court to have served in the Parliament of Australia prior to his appointment to the Court; the others were Edmund Barton, Richard O'Connor, Isaac Isaacs, H. B. Higgins, Edward McTiernan, Garfield Barwick, and Lionel Murphy.

Personal life

He was a prominent rationalist and atheist,[10] after abandoning his parents' Methodism at university. It was at this time that he ended his engagement to Elizabeth (Bessie) Moore, the daughter of Methodist Minister Henry Moore. Bessie later married Edwin P. Carter on the 18th May 1911 at the Northcote Methodist Church, High Street, Northcote.

Latham married Eleanor Mary Tobin, known as Ella.[11] They had three children, two of whom predeceased him. His wife, Ella, also predeceased him. Latham died in 1964 in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

He was also a prominent campaigner for Australian literature, being part of the editorial board of The Trident, a small liberal journal, which was edited by Walter Murdoch. The board also included poet Bernard O'Dowd.

Latham was president of the Free Library Movement of Victoria from 1937 and served as president of the Library Association of Australia from 1950 to 1953. He was the first non-librarian to hold the position.[12]


The Canberra suburb of Latham was named after him in 1971. There is also a lecture theatre named after him at The University of Melbourne.


  1. ^ "No. 31712". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1919. p. 4.
  2. ^ Lewis, David (3 July 1998). "John Latham and the Statute of Westminster". Archived from the original on 11 April 2011.
  3. ^ Wheeler (2011).
  4. ^ Wheeler (2011), p. 664.
  5. ^ Wheeler (2011), pp. 669–671.
  6. ^ Wheeler (2011), pp. 667–8.
  7. ^ Wheeler (2011), p. 666.
  8. ^ Wheeler (2011), p. 653.
  9. ^ Wheeler (2011), p. 672.
  10. ^ Morgan (2005), p. 144.
  11. ^ "Latham, Eleanor Mary". The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia. Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  12. ^ "Sir John Latham". Australian Library and Information Association. Retrieved 24 July 2021.


Parliament of Australia Preceded byRobert Best Member for Kooyong1922–1934 Succeeded byRobert Menzies Political offices Preceded byLittleton Groom Attorney-General1925–1929 Succeeded byFrank Brennan New title Minister for Industry1928–1929 Succeeded byJames Scullin Preceded byJames Scullin Leader of the Opposition1929–1931 Succeeded byJoseph Lyons Preceded byHenry Gullett Deputy Leader of the Opposition1931–1932 Succeeded byFrank Forde Preceded byLittleton Groom Attorney-General1932–1934 Succeeded byRobert Menzies Preceded byJames Scullin Minister for External Affairs1932–1934 Succeeded byGeorge Pearce Preceded byJames Scullin Minister for Industry1932–1934 Succeeded byRobert Menzies Party political offices Preceded byStanley Bruce Leader of the Nationalist Party1929–1931 Party disbanded Legal offices Preceded bySir Frank Gavan Duffy Chief Justice of Australia1935–1952 Succeeded bySir Owen Dixon Diplomatic posts Preceded byEric Longfield Lloydas Commissioner Australian Minister to Japan1940 – 1941 VacantDeclaration of warTitle next held byWilliam Macmahon Ball