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Lionel Keith Murphy QC (30 August 1922 – 21 October 1986) was an Australian politician and judge. He was a Senator for New South Wales from 1962 to 1975, serving as Attorney-General in the Whitlam Government, and then sat on the High Court from 1975 until his death.

Lionel Murphy

Lionel Murphy 1973 (cropped).jpg
Murphy in 1973
Justice of the High Court of Australia
In office
10 February 1975 – 21 October 1986
Nominated byGough Whitlam
Appointed bySir John Kerr
Preceded bySir Douglas Menzies
Succeeded byJohn Toohey
Attorney-General of Australia
In office
19 December 1972 – 9 February 1975
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byGough Whitlam[a]
Succeeded byKep Enderby
Senator for New South Wales
In office
1 July 1962 – 9 February 1975
Succeeded byCleaver Bunton
Personal details
Born(1922-08-30)30 August 1922
Kensington, New South Wales, Australia
Died21 October 1986(1986-10-21) (aged 64)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Political partyLabor
Spouse(s)Nina Morrow
Ingrid Gee (née Grzonkowski)

Murphy was born in Sydney, and attended Sydney Boys High School before going on to the University of Sydney. He initially graduated with a degree in chemistry, but then went on to Sydney Law School and eventually became a barrister. He specialised in labour and industrial law, and took silk in 1960. Murphy was elected to the Senate at the 1961 federal election, as a member of the Labor Party. He became Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in 1967.

Following Labor's victory at the 1972 federal election, Gough Whitlam appointed Murphy as Attorney-General and Minister for Customs and Excise. He oversaw a number of reforms, establishing the Family Court of Australia, the Law Reform Commission, and the Australian Institute of Criminology, and developing the Family Law Act 1975, which fully established no-fault divorce. He also authorised the 1973 Murphy raids on ASIO. In 1975, following the death of Douglas Menzies, Murphy was appointed to the High Court. He is the most recent politician to be elevated to the court.

On the court, Murphy was known for his radicalism and judicial activism. However, his final years were marred by persistent allegations of corruption. He was convicted of perverting the course of justice in 1985, but had the conviction overturned on appeal and was acquitted at a second trial. In 1986, a commission was established to determine whether he was fit to remain on the court, but it was abandoned when Murphy announced that he was suffering from terminal cancer.


Early life and educationEdit

Murphy was the youngest of five sons, and sixth of seven children of William (b. Tipperary, Ireland) and Lily Murphy (née Murphy). He was born and grew up in Sydney.[1] Though the Murphy household was Irish Catholic,[2] albeit estranged from the Church,[3] Murphy became a humanist and rationalist.

He was educated at government schools in Sydney's south-eastern suburbs, including Kensington Public School in Kensington, where he was dux after repeating his final year in 1935,[3] and Sydney Boys High School from 1936–40[4] in the nearby Surry Hills, graduating with A levels in English, Mathematics, and Chemistry and B levels in Physics and French.[1] After completing his secondary education, in 1941, Murphy matriculated to the University of Sydney, though he had not been successful in gaining a university scholarship awarded to the top 100 in the state.[1] In 1945, after initially ordinary scholastic performance and a brief period of consideration of transferring to study a Bachelor of Arts to major in psychology in the Faculty of Arts,[1] Murphy excelled in his final year, graduating from the School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science with a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Organic Chemistry.[5] In 1943, he had commenced working in the chemistry industry, thereby coming under the authority of the wartime Manpower Directorate.[5]

In 1945, Murphy commenced studying law at the Sydney Law School of the University of Sydney and, in 1949, graduated with a Bachelor of Laws with Honours.[1] While at the University of Sydney, during both his science and law degrees, Murphy was politically and socially active and was involved in the Students' Chemistry Society, the Junior Science Association, and the Science Association.[1] In 1944, in his third year of his science degree, Murphy was elected to the Students' Representative Council but was dismissed two hours after his election victory, on a "constitutional technicality".[5] This event is said to have cemented his interest in politics and law, and he commenced participating in the university's debating society and its monthly debates the following year.[5]

Legal careerEdit

Unusually, two years prior to his graduating with and possessing a law degree, Murphy passed the Barristers' Admission Board examination and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar Association in 1947.[5] After graduating from the University of Sydney Faculty of Law, Murphy took up residence in University Chambers, Phillip Street and then moved to the fourth floor of Wentworth Chambers[3] and rapidly established himself as a labour/industrial lawyer, representing left-wing unionists.[5]

In 1960, he was appointed as a Queen's Counsel.[3]

Parliamentary careerEdit

A member of the Australian Labor Party from an early age, he was elected to the Australian Senate in 1961; and, in 1967, he was elected Opposition Leader in the Senate.[6] In the Senate pre-selection convention in the Sydney Trades Hall in April 1960, with backing from Ray Gietzelt (but lacking factional endorsement) and with the luck of drawing first in addressing the delegates, Murphy won support with an impassioned but well-structured and infectiously optimistic seven-minute speech on the Labor Party's historical commitment to civil liberties and human rights.[7]


Murphy in 1967.

In 1969, Labor Leader Gough Whitlam appointed him Shadow Attorney-General; and, when Labor won the 1972 election, he became Attorney-General and Minister for Customs and Excise.[8]

One of Murphy's more dramatic actions as Attorney-General was his sudden visit to the Melbourne headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) on 16 March 1973. This came about because ASIO officers were unable to satisfy his requests for information concerning intelligence on supposed terrorist groups operated by Croatian Australians. Murphy's concern about the matter was heightened by the impending visit to Australia of the Yugoslav Prime Minister Džemal Bijedić. ASIO officers claimed not to be able to locate the file with which to properly brief Murphy. Murphy's belief was that, though a security service was an important part of the Australian social fabric, like any other arm of executive government it must be accountable to the relevant Minister. [9] According to journalist George Negus, then Murphy's press secretary: "Lionel had asked for the files of the six most dangerous or subversive people in Australia". When they arrived, Murphy found they were of several Communist Party unionists and people such as CPA leader and peace movement activist Mavis Robertson … When he told Whitlam they both laughed.[10]

Murphy was highly involved in the behind-the-scenes machinations and parliamentary debates around the appointment of DLP Senator Vince Gair as Ambassador to Ireland in 1974 (see Gair Affair), which preceded Whitlam's calling of a double dissolution election for May 1974.

Murphy's most important legislative achievement was the Family Law Act 1975, which completely overhauled Australia's law on divorce and other family law matters, establishing the principle of "no-fault" divorce, in the face of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and many other individuals and organisations. This act also established the Family Court of Australia.[11]

Murphy used an existing provision of the Marriage Act 1961 (Section 39C) to establish the Civil Marriage Celebrant program. Using this provision he appointed about a hundred Civil Celebrants and urged them to provide marriage ceremonies of dignity, meaning and substance for non-church people. It was an initiative opposed by the Australian Labor Party, the public servants of his department and his personal staff. Although it was a radical move at the time, the program proved to be very successful. In 2015 74.9% of marrying couples in Australia chose a civil marriage celebrant to officiate.[12] The program broadened into the challenge of secular funerals of substance, namings and other ceremonies which celebrated the landmarks in human existence. Murphy took an enthusiastic interest in this program - sending telegrams of congratulation to the first several hundred couples married by civil celebrants and would often unexpectedly turn up uninvited to weddings performed by celebrants to delight in his achievement.[13]

Atmospheric nuclear explosion in the Pacific. Murphy took the French Government to the International Court of Justice over nuclear tests at Mururoa.

As Attorney-General, Murphy drew up a Human Rights Bill (which lapsed with the double dissolution of 1974) giving as amongst the reasons: "in criminal law, our protections against detention for interrogation and unreasonable search and seizure, for access to counsel and to ensure the segregation of different categories of prisoners are inadequate. Australian laws on the powers of the police, the rights of an accused person and the state of the penal system generally are unsatisfactory. Our privacy laws are vague and ineffective. There are few effective constraints on the gathering of information, or its disclosure, or surveillance, against unwanted publicity by government, the media or commercial organisations".[14] Murphy also introduced important legislation substantially abolishing appeals to the Privy Council, removing censorship, providing freedom of access to government information, reforming corporations and trade practices law, protecting the environment, abolishing the death penalty and outlawing racial and other discrimination.

Furthermore, Murphy established a systematic legal aid service for all courts, set up the Australian Law Reform Commission (and appointed Michael Kirby to be its inaugural chairman), the Australian Institute of Criminology and took the French Government to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to protest against its nuclear tests in the Pacific.[15] The French government conducted 41 atmospheric nuclear tests at Mururoa after 1966, formally ceasing atmospheric nuclear testing in 1974 as a result of public pressure facilitated by Murphy's ICJ case.[16]

Judicial careerEdit

High Court of Australia. Murphy served as a High Court justice from 1975 to 1986.

In February 1975, Whitlam appointed Murphy to a vacancy on the High Court of Australia. He was the first serving Labor politician appointed to the Court since Dr. H. V. Evatt in 1931 and the appointment was bitterly criticised. He resigned from the Senate on 9 February 1975 to take up the appointment.[17] Murphy was the last High Court justice to have served as a Member of Parliament, and the last politician appointed to the High Court. Additionally, Murphy 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, along with Edmund Barton, Richard O'Connor, Isaac Isaacs, H. B. Higgins, Edward McTiernan, John Latham, and Garfield Barwick.

Although it did not become a constitutional requirement until 1977, it had been long-standing convention that a Senate casual vacancy be filled by a person from the same political party. However, on 27 February 1975, the Premier of New South Wales, Tom Lewis, controversially appointed Cleaver Bunton, a person with no political affiliations, to replace Murphy in the Senate, beginning the chain of events which led to the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. These events in turn laid the groundwork for the 1977 constitutional change that now ensures such an appointment can never be repeated. Soon after his appointment to the bench, Murphy visited Justice Menzies' old chambers in Taylor Square, which would now be his. Staring at the volumes of British law reports on the shelves behind his desk, he said, "I want all of these to go". He replaced them with decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States.[18]

Key judicial quotesEdit

  • Australian Aboriginal history:
  • Freedom of religion:
  • Freedom of speech:
  • Trial by jury:

Preservation of the world's natural heritage:

  • Constitutional prohibition of slavery:
  • Constitutional prohibition on civil conscription for medical or dental services:
  • Theory of class struggle:
  • Right to vote:
  • Privilege against self-incrimination:
  • Legal professional privilege:
  • Acquisition of property on just terms:
  • Control of multinational corporations:

Court cases and deathEdit

In July 1985, during the term of the Hawke Labor government, Murphy was convicted on one of two charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice, over allegations made by Clarrie Briese, the Chief Magistrate of New South Wales, that Murphy had attempted to influence a court case against Sydney lawyer Morgan Ryan, whom Murphy referred to as "my little mate". A subsequent appeal to the NSW Court of Appeals quashed Murphy's conviction on the grounds that the trial judge had misdirected the jury. A second trial was then held and, on 28 April 1986, Murphy was found not guilty of attempting to pervert the course of justice[35]. After his acquittal, Murphy said, "Thank God for the jury system!"[citation needed].

Attorney-General Lionel Bowen, acting on what he said was his belief that the Justices of the High Court were minded to take some independent action to assess Justice Murphy's fitness to return to the Court, introduced legislation for a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, constituted by three retired judges, to examine "whether any conduct of the Honourable Lionel Keith Murphy has been such as to amount, in its opinion, to proved misbehaviour within the meaning of section 72 of the Constitution". (Section 72 specifies that a High Court judge may be removed only by the Governor-General and both houses of Parliament "on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity".) The terms of this inquiry specifically excluded the issues for which Murphy had already been tried and acquitted.

The legislation establishing the Commission of Inquiry received assent in May 1986. In July, Murphy announced that he was dying of terminal cancer, and the establishing legislation was repealed.[36] That repeal legislation vested control of the Commission's documents in the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate. Murphy returned to the Court for one week of sittings. He died on 21 October 1986.

Personal lifeEdit

Murphy had a distinctive profile and a large nose that was broken in a 1950 car accident in England and left largely untreated.[3]

In July 1954, he married Russian-born Nina Morrow (née Vishegorodsky; known as Svidersky), a comptometrist, at St John's Church in Darlinghurst, Sydney. Their daughter, Lorel Katherine, was born in 1955. In 1967, Murphy's marriage to Nina ended in divorce.

In 1969, Murphy married Ingrid Gee (née Grzonkowski), a model and television quiz-show compère who had been born in German-occupied Poland. They had two sons, Cameron and Blake. Cameron was President of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties from 1999 to 2013. Ingrid died in October 2007.[37]


Large Magellanic Cloud, containing SNR N86.

In addition to his work as a legislator, Murphy also took a lifelong interest in science, having first studied science, then law, at the University of Sydney. Justice Michael Kirby identified Murphy's later scientific reading as "a positive influence on his approach to jurisprudence".[38]

"Lionel Murphy SNR"Edit

N86 is a nitrogen-abundant supernova remnant (SNR) N86 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It was dubbed the "Lionel-Murphy SNR" by astronomers at the Australian National University's Mount Stromlo Observatory in acknowledgement of Murphy's interest in science and because of SNR N86's perceived resemblance to a Canberra Times cartoonist's depiction of his large nose (prior to surgery), and a picture was hung in his office.[39]

A supernova remnant (SNR) results from the gigantic explosion of a star, the resulting supernova expelling much or all of the stellar material with velocities as much as 1% the speed of light and forming a shock wave that can heat the gas up to temperatures as high as 10 million K, forming a plasma.[40]

Murphy normally rejected public honours (such as a knighthood) but accepted this because of the symbolic resemblance to his own impact on human rights in Australian law and its lasting significance as a "signpost" to space travellers.[41] Murphy asked for a large mounted photo of SNR N86 from the scientific paper and placed it in his High Court chambers in the place where the other High Court justices usually hung a portrait of the Queen.[42]

Lionel Murphy FoundationEdit

The Lionel Murphy Foundation was co-founded by Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran, and Ray Gietzelt in 1986.[43] It funds postgraduate scholarships for students who "intend to pursue a postgraduate degree in science, law or legal studies, or other appropriate discipline" with a commitment to social justice.[44]

Judicial philosophy and legacyEdit

Mary Gaudron, who herself would become a justice of the High Court, stated at Lionel Murphy's Memorial Service at Sydney Town Hall:

There are so many words — reformist, radical, humanitarian, civil libertarian, egalitarian, democrat — they are all abstractions. My words are no better; but, for me, and perhaps for those of us who believe in justice based on practical equality, Lionel Murphy was — Lionel Murphy is — the electric light of the Law. He would take an ordinary old abstraction — like equal justice — he would expose it, he would illuminate the abstraction, he would make its form stark, and so he could then say as he did in McInnis' case, these words: "Where the kind of trial a person receives depends on the amount of money he or she has, there is no equal justice".[45][46]

Law professor Jack Goldring concluded that Murphy's approach as a High Court judge was "marked by a number of features: a strong nationalism conceding and welcoming the existence of States as political (albeit subsidiary) entities; a stalwart belief in democracy and parliamentary rule; a firm support for civil liberties; and overall a 'constitutionalism' in the classical, liberal sense of seeing a constitution as not simply a legal document, but rather as a set of values shared by the community".[47]


  1. ^ Whitlam appointed himself Attorney-General for two weeks as part of "the Duumvirate" with Lance Barnard. His predecessor was Ivor Greenwood.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Hocking, Jenny (1997). Lionel Murphy. A Political Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Wood, Rebecca Danielle (2008). Why Do High Court Judges Join? Joining Behavior and Australia's Seriatim Tradition (Ph.D.). Michigan State University. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-549-84411-2.
  3. ^ a b c d e Galligan, Brian (2012). "Murphy, Lionel Keith (1922–1986)" (hardcopy). Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  4. ^ "High Achievers Lists: Judges" (PDF). Sydney Boys High School Old Boys Union. Retrieved 6 January 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Millar, F. Ann (2010). The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. 3: Volumes 1962–1983. Kensington, Australia: UNSW Press. p. 415.
  6. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Chapters 7–8.
  7. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Pages 67–68.
  8. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Chapter 12.
  9. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Pages 162-7.
  10. ^ McKnight, David (1994). Australia's Spies and Their Secrets. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  11. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Pages 214–218.
  12. ^ "Marriages and Divorces, Australia, 2015". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 30 November 2016. Retrieved 14 September 2017.
  13. ^ Messenger III, Dally (2012), Murphy’s Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne (Australia), ISBN 978-0-86786-169-3 p.41-49
  14. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Page 185.
  15. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Pages 149–173.
  16. ^ Danielsson, Bengt (1977). Moruroa, mon amour. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia. ISBN 0-14-004461-2.
  17. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Chapter 16.
  18. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Page 228.
  19. ^ a b Cth v Tasmania (Franklin River Dam Case) [1983] 158 CLR 1, 181.
  20. ^ Church of the New Faith v Comm. Pay-Roll Tax (Vict.) [1982–1983] 154 CLR 120, 150.
  21. ^ Church of the New Faith v Comm. Pay-Roll Tax (Vict.) [1982–1983] 154 CLR 120, 160.
  22. ^ Gallagher v Durack (1983) 152 CLR 238, 248
  23. ^ Gallagher v Durack [1982–1983] 152 CLR 238, 249.
  24. ^ Chamberlain v The Queen (No 2) [1983–1984] 153 CLR 521 at 569
  25. ^ a b Cth v Tasmania (Franklin River Dam Case) [1983] 158 CLR 1, 171.
  26. ^ Cth v Tasmania (Franklin River Dam Case) [1983] 158 CLR 1,172.
  27. ^ R v Director General of Social Welfare Exp Henry (1975) 133 CLR 369, 388.
  28. ^ General Practitioners Soc v Cth (1980) 145 CLR 532, 565.
  29. ^ Cth v Tasmania (Franklin River Dam Case) [1983] 158 CLR 1, 176.
  30. ^ Gallagher v Durack [1982–1983] 152 CLR 238, 251.
  31. ^ The Queen v Pearson ex parte Sipka [1983] 152 CLR 254, 268.
  32. ^ Pyneboard v TPC [1982–1983] 152 CLR 328, 346.
  33. ^ Sorby v The Cth [1983] 152 CLR 281, 311.
  34. ^ Baker v The Campbell [1983] 153 CLR 52 at 85
  35. ^ Ackland, Richard (24 September 2016). "Lionel Murphy misconduct inquiry: Senate president to decide on release of files". The Guardian.
  36. ^ "Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (Repeal) Act 1986". Commonwealth Consolidated Acts. Australasian Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  37. ^ "Enigmatic smile on the landscape". The Sydney Morning Herald. 17 October 2007. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  38. ^ Kirby, M. D. "Lionel Keith Murphy". The Lionel Murphy Foundation. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  39. ^ Murphy Williams, Rosa; Chu, You-Hua; Dickel, John R.; Smith, R. Chris; Milne, Douglas K.; Winkler, P. Frank (1999). "Supernova Remnants in the Magellanic Clouds. II. Supernova Remnant Breakouts from N11L and N86". The Astrophysical Journal. 514 (2): 798. Bibcode:1999ApJ...514..798W. doi:10.1086/306966.
  40. ^ Koyama, K; et al. (1995). "Evidence for shock acceleration of high-energy electrons in the supernova remnant SN1006". Nature. 378 (378): 255–258. Bibcode:1995Natur.378..255K. doi:10.1038/378255a0.
  41. ^ Hocking, Jenny (1997). Page 248.
  42. ^ Frame, T; Stromlo Faulkner, D (2003). An Australian Observatory. Allen & Unwin. p. 173.
  43. ^ Faulkner, John (28 November 2012). "Adjournment: Ray Gietzelt AO". Parliament of Australia. Senator John Faulkner. Archived from the original on 3 May 2013.
  44. ^ "The Lionel Murphy Foundation". The Lionel Murphy Foundation. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  45. ^ McInnis v The Queen (1979) 145 CLR 438
  46. ^ Gaudron, Mary (1987). "Speech at the Lionel Murphy Memorial Service, Sydney Town Hall, 27 October 1986". In Scutt J. A (ed.). Lionel Murphy: A Radical Judge. Melbourne: McCulloch Publishing. pp. 258–259.
  47. ^ Goldring, John (1987). "Murphy and the Australian Constitution". In Scutt J. A (ed.). Lionel Murphy: A Radical Judge. Melbourne: McCulloch Publishing. p. 60.


  • Blackshield, T. (2001). "Murphy affair". In Blackshield, Coper and Williams (ed.). The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-554022-0.
  • Hocking, Jenny (1997). Lionel Murphy: a political biography. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-58108-7.
  • Scutt, J. A., ed. (1987). Lionel Murphy, A Radical Judge. Melbourne: McCulloch Publishing. ISBN 0-949646-17-2.
  • Williams, J. (2001). "Murphy, Lionel Keith". In Blackshield, Coper and Williams (ed.). The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-554022-0.

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
Gough Whitlam
Attorney-General of Australia
Succeeded by
Kep Enderby
Minister for Customs and Excise
Party political offices
Preceded by
Don Willesee
Leader of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate
Succeeded by
Ken Wriedt