Member, Council of the Bar of New South Wales, 1926/27 - 1934/35
Member, Legislative Council of New South Wales, 08/09/1932 - 04/01/1935
Commissioner, Royal Commission of inquiry respecting areas in the State suitable for self-government as states in the Commonwealth of Australia, 25/08/1933 - 02/01/1935
Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, 01/02/1935 - 07/01/1948
Probate Judge, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 01/02/1935 - 07/01/1948
Chief Judge in Equity, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 17/11/1939 - 07/01/1948
Harold Sprent Nicholas was born on 8 January 1877 at Hobart, Tasmania, the son of William Nicholas and his wife Alice Mary nee Sprent. He was educated at the Hutchins School, Hobart, the University of Tasmania, and Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford (1895-1899, BA 1899, MA 1924). At Oxford he was Classical Exhibitioner, secretary and president of the Church Society (1897), president of the Debating Society (1897), secretary and president of the Pelican Essay Club (1897-8) and editor of the magazine 'Pelican Record'. He also wrote leader articles for the Manchester Guardian. He was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple on 1 May 1901. (1)
Nicholas returned to Australia and was called to the New South Wales Bar on 14 November 1901. He specialised in equity and constitutional law, worked mostly as a consultant and adviser from his Phillip Street Chambers, and rarely appeared in court. He wrote leader articles for the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph, published an Australian edition of 'Underhill's Trusts and Trustees' in 1913 and 'Trustee Acts of New South Wales' in 1926 with Hubert Harrington. From 1926/27 to 1934/35, he was a member of the Council of the Bar of New South Wales. (2)
Nicholas was a member of Parliament and associated with two Royal Commissions. He was Counsel assisting the Royal Commission on the Constitution, appointed by the Commonwealth of Australia under Letters Patent dated 18 August 1927. The Commission looked at the existing powers of the Commonwealth government and recommended changes. Its report was finalised on 7 September 1929. Nicholas was a Member of the NSW Legislative Council from 8 September 1932 till 4 January 1935 and was a strong supporter of its reform. On 25 August 1933, he was appointed sole commissioner for the New South Wales Royal Commission of inquiry respecting areas within the State suitable for self-government as states in the Commonwealth of Australia. It reported on 2 January 1935, recommended splitting New South Wales into two states after the holding of a referendum, but was never acted upon. (3)
Nicholas was appointed a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and Judge in Probate from 1 February 1935. From 17 November 1939 he was also Chief Judge in Equity. His Equity responsibilities included lunacy and in 1945 he heard the case of Boyd Sinclair. Sinclair had been committed to a psychiatric criminal institution in 1936 without trial. Nicholas' suggestions for reform to the laws of lunacy relating to criminals were incorporated into the Lunacy (Amendment) Act of 1946 (Act No.38, 1946). Nicholas heard cases in the Bankruptcy District of New South Wales for the Federal Court of Bankruptcy from 1940 until 1942, when a Federal judge was appointed. He retired from the Supreme Court Bench on 7 January 1948, having reached the retiring age of 70. (4)
Throughout his life, Nicholas had an interest in the theatre and current affairs. From 1937 he was foundation vice-president and later president of the Australian Branch of the British Drama League. He helped to preserve the Independent Theatre in North Sydney. He was first editor of the Australian Quarterly from 1929 to 1934 and he and his friends sustained it through the Great Depression. He was active in the Sydney Group of the Round Table and Australian Institute of International Affairs. His publications included 'Australian problems in the Pacific' in Australia Economic and Political Studies (1920); a second edition of Trustee Act of New South Wales (with J D Evans, 1939), Origins and issues of the war (Through Australian eyes: pamphlets on world affairs, No.1, 1940); and The Australian Constitution: an analysis... (1948, Second edition 1952). In 1949 Nicholas acted as leader for the Australian delegation to the fourth session conference of the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. In 1951-1952 he chaired the Nicholas Committee set up by the Commonwealth of Australia to look at Federal Parliamentary salaries and allowances. (5)
Nicholas died on 11 June 1953. He was survived by a son and daughter from his first marriage to Mabel Woodhead (d.1940), and by his second wife who was his cousin Grace Penwarne Gellibrand nee Nicholas. (6) His grandson, William Henric Nicholas, was sworn in as a Judge of the Supreme Court on 5 February 2003. (7)
1. John M Ward, 'Nicholas, Harold Sprent (1877-1953), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online edition, http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A110022b.htm (cited 11 January 2008); Who's Who in Australia, 1933, p.240; 1935, p.356; 1938, p.384; 1941, pp.509-10; 1944, p.628; 1947, p.638; 1950, p.536; Corpus Christi College (University of Oxford), Biographical Register 1880-1974, Oxford, the College, 1988, p.144; Australian Law Journal, Vol.20 (1946/47), p.339; Vol.27 (1953/54), p.107; New South Wales Law Almanac for 1907, Sydney, NSW Government Printer, 1907, p.49.
2. Barristers Admission Board; NRS 13665, Roll of Barristers, 1876-1926; Reel 2147, p.13; ADB, op.cit.; New South Wales Law Almanac, 1927, p.52; 1928, p.52; 1929, p.53; 1930, p.53; 1931, p.55; 1932, p.56; 1933, p.56; 1934, p.57; 1935, p.57.
3. Agency CA 2450 'Royal Commission on the Constitution', National Archives of Australia http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/AgencyDetail.asp?M=3&B=CA+2450 (cited 5 May 2008); 'Mr Harold Sprent Nicholas [Former member],' New South Wales Parliament website http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/members.nsf/V3ListFormerMembers (cited 2 May 2008); DH Borchardt, Checklist of Royal Commissions Select Committees of Parliament and Boards of Inquiry, Part IV New South Wales 1855-1960, Bundoora, La Trobe University Library, 1975, pp.311-12.
4. NSW Government Gazette, No.25, 1 February 1935, p.465; No.36, 15 February 1935, p.640; No.181, 17 November 1939, p.5348; ADB, op.cit.; State Reports New South Wales, Sydney, Law Book Company of Australasia Ltd, Vol.40 (1940) - Vol.42 (1942); JM Bennett, A History of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Sydney, Law Book Company Ltd, 1974, pp.123-4; Australian Law Journal, Vol.20 (1946/47), p.339; New South Wales Law Almanac for the year for 1949, Sydney, NSW Government Printer, 1949, p.39.
5. ADB, op.cit; Who's Who in Australia, op.cit.
6. ADB, ibid.
7. 'Swearing in Ceremony of the Honourable William Henric Nicholas QC as a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales', http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink/supreme_court/ll_sc.nsf/pages/SCO_speech_nicholas_050203 (cited 2 May 2008).