John Latham (judge)

For other people with the same name, see John Latham (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
Sir John Latham

Chief Justice Sir John Latham in 1945
5th Chief Justice of Australia
In office
11 October 1935  7 April 1952
Nominated by Joseph Lyons
Appointed by Sir Isaac Isaacs
Preceded by Sir Frank Gavan Duffy
Succeeded by Sir Owen Dixon
9th Leader of the Opposition
In office
22 October 1929  7 May 1931
Prime Minister James Scullin
Preceded by James Scullin
Succeeded by Joseph Lyons
3rd Leader of the Nationalist Party
In office
22 October 1929  7 May 1931
Preceded by Stanley Bruce
Succeeded by Position Abolished
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Kooyong
In office
16 December 1922  15 September 1934
Preceded by Robert Best
Succeeded by Robert Menzies
Personal details
Born (1877-08-26)26 August 1877
Ascot Vale, Victoria
Died 25 July 1964(1964-07-25) (aged 86)
Nationality Australian
Political party Liberal Union (1922–1925)
Nationalist (1925–1931)
UAP (1931–1934)
Alma mater University of Melbourne

Sir John Greig Latham GCMG QC (26 August 1877 – 25 July 1964) was an Australian judge and politician who served as fifth Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia for seventeen years, from 1935 to 1952.

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.


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.

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 BrucePage 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 by Menzies, who would go on to become Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister.

Judicial career

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.

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.


He died in 1964 in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. Latham was a prominent rationalist and atheist,[3] after abandoning his parent's Methodism at university. 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 had three children, two of whom predeceased him. His wife, Ella, also predeceased him.


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.



Wikimedia Commons has media related to John Latham (judge).
Political offices
Preceded by
Littleton Groom
Succeeded by
Frank Brennan
New title Minister for Industry
Succeeded by
James Scullin
Preceded by
Littleton Groom
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Preceded by
James Scullin
Minister for External Affairs
Succeeded by
George Pearce
Preceded by
James Scullin
Minister for Industry
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Party political offices
Preceded by
Stanley Bruce
Leader of the Nationalist Party
Party disbanded
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
Robert Best
Member for Kooyong
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Diplomatic posts
New title
Position established
Australian Minister to Japan
1940 – 1941
Australian declaration of war on Japan
Title next held by
Edward Ronald Walker
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Frank Gavan Duffy
Chief Justice of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir Owen Dixon
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