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Sir Samuel Way – The legal man

Sir Samuel Way Building

Sir Samuel Way was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1876 to his death in 1916.  He held the position for nearly 40 years and remains the longest serving Chief Justice of a Supreme Court in Australia.

After arriving in South Australia in 1853, Way undertook a legal clerkship and was admitted to the Bar in 1861.  Way’s legal career advanced quickly due to his ability as a barrister and his involvement in two of the state’s biggest cases – the removal of Chief Justice Boothby and the Moonta Mines Case which was the first appeal from the Supreme Court to the Privy Council.

Way entered politics in 1875 and was appointed Attorney-General.  The appointment played a key role in his elevation to Chief Justice.   With the sudden death of Chief Justice Hanson in 1876, the Attorney-General was responsible for recommending Hanson’s successor.  Under English law, Way could recommend himself, which he did with the support of the Premier and cabinet.

Way’s appointment as Chief Justice while still under 40, without financial backing or university qualifications, is a testament to his skills and energy.  His elevation from Attorney-General to Chief Justice was disapproved by the other judges who did not speak to him after his appointment except in an official capacity.

The culmination of his legal career occurred in 1896 when he was nominated by the Australasian colonies to be appointed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the court of appeal for the British Empire.

After being granted a baronetcy in 1899, Way’s official life began a slow decline in status.  Although not officially involved in the Federation movement, Way lobbied unsuccessfully to prevent any restrictions on the power of the Privy Council to grant leave to appeal from the High Court.  Way was suspicious of the High Court which he considered ‘was no more needed than the fifth wheel to a coach’.

In 1901 he rejected the offer of a seat on the High Court.  He was 70 years old and preferred not to give up the roles of Chief Justice, Lieutenant-Governor, Grand Master and Chancellor of the University to accept a ‘puisne judgeship of the High Court, which in those days travelled by wearisome stages on rail and by boat to all of the Australian States.’

Way was a great judge who promoted legal reforms to deliver justice more promptly and reduce the cost of litigation.  He was not a great jurist.  His pragmatic cast of mind inhibited intensive historical research or jurisprudential analysis.  At times he strained the law to produce the result that he thought justice and common sense demanded.  But he was conscientious, intelligent and industrious, and his verdicts gave general satisfaction.  ‘He took infinite pains to make the reasons for his decisions intelligible to the parties as well as their legal advisers’.

Way’s significance to the SA courts and legal profession has been commemorated with the naming of the District Court building in Victoria Square as the Sir Samuel Way Building when it opened in 1983.

Paraphrased and adapted with thanks from:  “Way, Sir Samuel James (1836-1916)” by J J Bray in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, Melbourne University Press, 1990.


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