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Hands, Tatum --- "The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia edited by Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams" [2002] AltLawJl 38; (2002) 27(2) Alternative Law Journal 102


The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia

edited by Tony Blackshield, Michael Coper and George Williams; Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2002; 804pp; $150.00 hardback.

The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia is described on its dustcover as 'a comprehensive and incisive account of the Court, from its inception in 1903 to the present'. I can think of no better words with which to describe, in a single sentence, this book's contribution. The Companion features 435 separate entries by 225 authors - including among them eminent jurists and academics-each a specialist in their field. Topics covered include such unconventional gems as 'ideology', 'criticism of the Court', 'political impact of Court's decisions', 'sexual preference', 'popular culture' and an account of the 1997 film The Castle, which told the fictional story of a family's challenge to the interpretation of s.51 (xxxi) (compulsory acquisition of land) of the Constitution.

The Companion also features the more predictable accounts of important High Court cases - among them the Communist Party case, the Bank Nationalisation case, Mabo, Wik and the Free Speech cases. Each is placed in its historical and, perhaps more importantly, political context. Surpassing my expectations of a reference book are the summaries of different areas of law and legal scholarship. In these entries specialist authors have met the almost impossible task of condensing a century of developments into concise but informative chronicles of Australian jurisprudence. However the entries that most caught my attention were those that assessed the achievements of the High Court under each Chief Justice (see particularly: 'Dixon Court' and 'Mason Court') and the biographic accounts of individual justices.

This last area deserves special mention because, until now, few accounts of the personal lives of many of the jus­ tices of the High Court have been published. The value of such accounts is defended in the Companion as proving helpful in assessing the extent to which values and personal convictions might have affected the reasons for judgment of individual justices - a subject of enduring debate. The biographic entries certainly allow some insight into the individuals who have constituted the Court, and contain a few remarkable surprises.

One such surprise is the publication of a summary of short extracts from Sir Owen Dixon's personal diaries which span over 30 of the 35 years of his incumbency as Justice, and later Chief Justice, of the High Court. The diaries, apparently meticulously kept, feature summaries of important discussions with notable individuals such as President Roosevelt (during Dixon's appointment as Minister Plenipotentiaryto Washington from 1942-44) and Prime Minister Menzies (a former pupil and longstanding friend). They also record Dixon's opinions of other justices, revealing significant rifts in the personal relations of members of the Court. One candid revelation involves Dixon's apparent professional disdain for justices who had formerly been active politicians – Latham seems to have suffered Dixon's contempt on account of his being driven by considerations of public policy and his 'habitual bias for the government' (p.223).

The quality of the Companion's entries is consistently high, something which doubtless owes as much to the book's editors as to the authors who have contributed subject texts. Another formidable achievement of the editors (and research assistants) is the comprehensive indexing, which not only cross-references in bold type the first occurrence of words which themselves are the subject of entries, but also provides easily accessible index lists of subjects, cases and identities. One downfall of the Companion is that direct quotes, while acknowledged by quotation marks, are not always referenced. In most cases some indication of the source may be given in the 'further reading' section that concludes the entry, but sometimes quotes are left without attribution, rendering the Companion arguably less valuable as a reference tool. I hope that future additions revisit and update the bibliographical information accompanying the entries to enhance the Companion s usefulness as an authoritative resource.

The Companion will be widely used by students and professionals alike as a first port of call for a wide variety of information about the High Court in historical context. I have no doubt that it will enjoy a deservedly long life with numerous editions (I expect the second edition will coincide with the High Court's centenary to be celebrated in late 2003). The price, at $150, may appear a little steep in the abstract, but once you sample its intellectual offerings the money outlaid will quickly be forgotten. It has already become, for me, an invaluable quick-reference tool. I commend the Companion, beyond its anticipated legal audience, to all who may be interested in the High Court as an institution and the individuals who have constituted or have been other­ wise notably connected to it, as well as those simply interested in expanding their knowledge of Australian history.


Tatum Hands is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Australia.


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