MORISON, William Loutit. BA, LLB (Sydney), DPhil (Oxford). Emeritus Professor (Law). 1984. Panel C.
(Deceased), 2000-05-04
Law and Legal Studies

William (‘Bill’) Loutit Morison died on 5 April 2000. Born on 1 July 1920, he was educated at North Sydney Boys’ High School, the University of Sydney and Oxford University. He graduated BA LLB (Syd) with the University Medal in Philosophy and History and D Phil (Oxon). In 1946, he was appointed a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney, where he remained until his retirement 39 years later. He was appointed Associate Professor in 1955 and Professor in 1959. He had an international reputation as a torts lawyer, though his interests extended more widely into other fields of law and philosophy.

He held appointments as Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Social Sciences, the Australian National University 1976-1977, member of the Board of Sydney University Press, the NSW Privacy Committee 1975-1981, the Board of Governors, College of Law, Sydney 1972-1983, of the NSW Law Reform Commission 1968-1970, Visiting Fellow 1957-1958, 1959-1960 and later Senior Fellow 1968-1970 of the Law School, Yale University. He was elected a Fellow of the Academy in 1984. His publications included John Austin 1982, The System of Law and Courts Governing New South Wales, (2nd ed) 1984, The Sydney Centenary Essays in Law (jointly) 1991 and Torts Commentary and Materials (with C Sappideen) (8th ed) 1992. He contributed chapters to a number of books and wrote influential articles in academic journals.

At the Sydney Law School he lectured in Torts, Private International Law and Legal Method. His contribution to A Century Down Town, a history of the Law School, evidenced his close identification with the Law School, its teachers and students, as well as giving some account of the controversies which beset the institution and the personalities which generated the controversies.

Bill was the last of a line of distinguished lawyers who studied Philosophy under Professor John Anderson. It was an era in which a grounding in Philosophy was recommended as a preliminary to the study of law. Bill’s contemporaries Frank Hutley and Ross Parsons followed a similar path, gaining a University Medal in Philosophy and Law, before being appointed Lecturers in the Law School. Like Bill, they were strongly influenced by John Anderson. Frank Hutley, who became a Judge of the NSW Court of Appeal, was Bill’s best man when he married Mary Cork in 1947. His marriage was the beginning of a family life that was a source of great affection and enjoyment.

Much to Bill’s amusement, Frank said of him that he would never amount to anything but the Methodist baker’s son. Of Frank, Justice Gaudron said he appeared to have no idea that there was a law of defamation.

In the Law School controversies, chief of which was the conflict between Julius Stone and the then Dean, James Williams, Bill stood his ground and spoke his mind. A person of unshakeable intellectual integrity, he was a resolute defender of academic traditions and standards and an uncompromising opponent of the politicisation of the curriculum. His Law School experience stood him in good stead when a bear attempted to climb into his car in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park.

I recall Bill’s lectures in Torts and Conflict of Laws in 1946 and 1947. They were very well organised. His exposition was precise, logical, analytical and rigorous. He took account of the purpose of legal principle and the policies that lay behind them. Although his desire to impose a sense of order on the chaos that has overtaken the law of torts led him to see the law as a series of categories, he always saw the categories as a manifestation of broader concepts within a grander order of things. In later years I came to think of him as a legal thinker with some similarities to Cyril Walsh, a University medallist in Philosophy and Law, who was appointed to the High Court of Australia.

He was, in my view, one of the three best lecturers at the Law School at that time. Bill lacked the showmanship and confidence of Julius Stone. Although he came across as a reserved personality, his reserve frequently gave way to shafts of humour. He was a connoisseur of puns and limericks.

To some extent, like John Anderson himself, Bill Morison’s publications did not do complete justice to his outstanding reputation and ability. He did not write a textbook on Torts to compare with that of Professor John Fleming, the doyen of Australian tort lawyers. Yet he wrote a number of penetrating articles, some of them on the duty of care in negligence which was always a source of abiding interest to him. The flavour of his thinking and style is conveyed by an exchange of correspondence with John Fleming published in Sydney Law Review (1: 69-77). This correspondence relates to Lord Atkin’s statement in Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562 about the duty of care. The views revealed in this correspondence have been largely overtaken by the march of events. But they have an historical interest because they recapture the problems as seen by two leading thinkers about tort law twenty years after the delivery of one of the landmark legal judgments of the twentieth century, a judgment which continues to cast its long shadow, even at this distance in time.

Of his books, John Austin, was a study of the work of the influential legal positivist who attempted to locate the study of law in a systematic intellectual framework so that correct answers to legal questions could be scientifically ascertained. Bill Morison was not, however, a simple legal positivist. His friendship with Dean Eugene Rostow and Myres S McDougal of Yale exposed him to the thinking of the legal realists and to policy-oriented jurisprudence.

The System of Law and Courts Governing New South Wales was prescribed as a book for first year law students, dealing with legal institutions, legal method and introductory jurisprudence. It was profound and encyclopaedic. But it was pitched at a level that was too high and sophisticated for its audience.

Torts Commentary and Materials begins with the Commentary. It reveals Bill’s migration from an analytical approach to a more functional approach to the formulation of tort law. His understanding of law in the social process drew on the approach of Harold D Lasswell and Myres S McDougal of the Yale Law School. But he believed that tort law could only be understood by reducing it, in the fashion of Jeremy Bentham, to categories of interests.

An assessment of Bill’s contribution to the study of law in Australia rests principally on his pervasive influence on torts law and jurisprudence over four decades as a teacher and collaborative thinker about the law. Like most successful teachers, he had an extremely disciplined mind and a deep commitment to teaching and scholarship. Students had a great respect for him. His lectures were a valuable instruction in legal method, though his version of legal method was more open and more inclusive than Sir Owen Dixon’s version of judicial method.

In his retirement he continued to write, mostly for Heraclitus, the newsletter of the Sydney Realists.

Bill is survived by his wife Mary and his children Donald, Neale and Alethea.

Anthony Mason