Judge, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 31/08/1964 - 11/02/1986
Chief Judge, Criminal Division, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 13/08/1979 - 11/02/1986
Additional Judge of Appeal, Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 13/08/1979 - 11/02/1986
John O'Brien was born on 11 February 1917 at Narrandera, New South Wales, the son of Timothy O'Brien, a school teacher, and his wife Eileen nee Ryder. He was educated at the Christian Brothers' St Patrick's College, Strathfield, and the University of Sydney (LLB Honours Class I 1939). He was an award winning student. He won a Public Exhibition scholarship to the University based on his results in the Leaving Certificate examination of November 1934. At the University he won the 1936 Wigram Allen Scholarship No.I for general proficiency in first year law. In 1938 he was awarded the John Geddes Memorial Prize for Equity. In his final year in 1939 he shared with F C Hutley the University Medal for Law and he also won the John George Dalley Prize for proficiency in the fourth year, awarded annually to the most distinguished graduate from the Law School. (1)
Whilst studying law, O'Brien was employed in the New South Wales public service. He joined the public service on 4 February 1935 as a junior clerk in the Electrical Office of the Department of Public Works. In 1937 he was transferred to the general office of the Government Architect's Branch. On 2 January 1940 he was loaned to the Industrial Registrar's Branch in the Department of Labour and Industry and Social Security. Permanently with the Department of Labour as a clerk from 1 April 1941, he was promoted to legal officer from 6 January 1942, prosecuting against breaches of the Factories and Shop Act. He resigned from the public service on 19 March 1947. (2)
O'Brien served in the Australian Army during World War II. He transferred from the militia on 10 August 1942 and served in the Artillery and the Ordnance branch in both Australia and New Guinea. By the end of the war he was in the Master General of the Ordnance Branch at Land Headquarters Melbourne. At the time of his discharge from the Army on 3 October 1946, he was described as a Major at Head Quarters New Guinea Force. (3)
Although O'Brien was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 25 August 1939, he did not establish his practice until late 1946. His chambers were at 150 Phillips Street, Sydney, until 1957 when he moved to 180 Phillip Street. He specialised in common law, industrial and criminal law and was also Crown Prosecutor in conspiracy trials. He was a Council member of the New South Wales Bar Association from 1961/62 to 1963/64. (4)
On 31 August 1964 he was appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. From 13 August 1979 he was the Chief Judge of the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court. As such he also became an Additional Judge of Appeal in the Court of Appeal. He was the first and only appointee as the Chief Judge of the Criminal Division as the position was created in 1979 and ceased when he retired on 11 February 1986 due to ill health. (5)
O'Brien's interests outside the law included music, dance, art, playing the violin, golf, football, cricket and cabinet making. (6)
He died on 15 November 1999, survived by his wife Margaret Mary nee McMillan, whom he married on 13 March 1942, and three of their four daughters. (7)
1. Who's Who in Australia, Melbourne, The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, 1965, p.647; 1968, p.657; 1971, p.722; 1974, p.785; 1977, pp.830-31; 1980, p.643; 1983, p.656; 1985, p.650; 'John O'Brien: Supreme Court Judge 1917-1999', Sydney Morning Herald 13 January 2000, p.12; Inspector of Schools Branch; NRS 15320, Teacher career cards, 1908-1945; [NRS15320/1/43] O'Brien, Timothy; University of Sydney Calendar, 1935, pp.508, 781; 1936, pp.562, 817; 1937, pp.451, 686; 1938, pp.469, 710; 1939, pp.337, 374, 386, 389, 424, 485, 614, http://calendararchive.usyd.edu.au/index.php (cited 27 May 2008).
2. Public Service Board; NRS 12395, Employees' history cards, 1911-1968; [8/2691] O'Brien, John; New South Wales, Public Service List, Sydney, NSW Government Printer, 1935, p.79; 1938, p.90; 1946, p.127.
3. 'O'Brien, John', Department of Veterans Affairs World War 2 Nominal Roll http://www.ww2roll.gov.au/script/veteran.asp?ServiceID=A&VeteranID=220218 (cited 23 October 2008); Australian Law Journal, Vol.38, p.326 (29 January 1965).
4. Barrister and Solicitors Admission Boards; NRS 13665, Roll of Barristers, 17 February 1927-10 June 1955; Reel 2147, p.15; Australian Law Journal, op.cit.; New South Wales Law Almanac, Sydney, NSW Government Printer, 1940, p.76; 1941, p.76; 1947, p.68; 1958, p.84; 1962, p.75; 1963, p.73; 1964, p.75.
5. State Reports New South Wales, Sydney, Law Book Company Ltd, Vol.64, p.v (1963-1964); New South Wales Law Reports, Sydney, Law Book Company Ltd, 1979, Vol.1, pp.vii-viii; Vol.5, 1985-1986, p.ix; Australian Law Journal, Vol.38, p.326 (29 January 1965); Vol.53, p.798 (November 1979); Vol.60, p.250 (April 1986); New South Wales Law Almanac 2000, Sydney, LBC Information Services, 2000, p.64; Sydney Morning Herald 13 January 2000, p.12.
7. ibid.; Who's Who in Australia, op.cit.; New South Wales Law Almanac 2000, op.cit., p.64.