The passing of an influential legal figure

Few educators can boast of a standing ovation following one of their lectures but it was not uncommon for Professor Robin Sharwood AM, who passed away on April 12, aged 83.

Professor Robin Sharwood AM pictured with former classmates
Professor Robin Sharwood AM (fifth from left) pictured with former classmates in 2007

The esteemed academic was so popular among his students that some often returned post-graduation just to hear him deliver particular lectures again.

"His legal history lectures were justly famous," former student and now Grattan Institute CEO, John Daley, says.

"They were outstanding pieces of scholarship; insightful about the underlying social forces; understanding the politics where it mattered; illuminating the personal details that brought the history to life; eclectic in their sources; and delivered with an ear for the elegant sentence."

"They opened my eyes to what good history looks like."

Professor Sharwood became a colossal figure during his six-decade association with Melbourne Law School.

His involvement dates back to his undertaking of an LLB, which he graduated with honours with in 1954, winning the Supreme Court Prize in the process.

He then served articles of clerkship with Norris, Coates and Hearle; was admitted to practise in 1955; then appointed the Walter Perry Johnson Graduate Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained his LLM the following year.

Professor Sharwood returned to MLS in 1958 for a six-year role as a Senior Lecturer, and again in 1980 to teach, being made a Professorial Associate and Fellow in 1989.

In between, he served as Warden of Trinity College (1965-1973), held a teaching position at Ormond College, was appointed Chair in Law at the Australian National University, and later worked at the Victorian Law Foundation.

Barrister Michael Gronow was lectured by Professor Sharwood as a law student in the 1980s.

"He was a very considerable scholar, particularly about Legal History and Torts, but wore his learning lightly and always delivered it with charm," he says.

"He was also a most engaging conversationalist and after dinner speaker, and extremely good fun. He was one of the few people who showed me by example what it is to be a first-class scholar and teacher, and how one thinks and behaves."

MLS Dean Professor Carolyn Evans said few people had made such a significant contribution to MLS over such an extensive period of time as Professor Sharwood.

"Professor Sharwood was a dear member of the Melbourne Law School community. His tremendous contribution to the Law School, characterised by his strong intellect, generosity of spirit and collegiality leaves a lasting legacy in the history of Melbourne Law School," she says.

"Robin was a truly gifted teacher whose students remember his lectures with admiration and warmth. His knowledge of legal history was extraordinary and his lectures are remembered by generations of students as among the finest they attended. He combined a deep knowledge of his subject with an elegant communication style and a dry wit."

Outside of teaching, Professor Sharwood was Lay Canon of St Paul's Cathedral for almost 35 years, as well as Chancellor of the Anglican Church to the Dioceses of Wangaratta (1974-99) and Ballarat (1995-2002), advising on matters of Ecclesiastical Law, a specialty in which he practised pro bono for more than three decades.

He was also involved in the Arts Council of Australia, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne Trust Fund, and Friends of the Gallery Library of the National Gallery of Victoria.

On Australia Day in 2000, he was appointed a Member of the Order for Australia for service to legal education and for service to the Anglican Church of Australia.

Professor Sharwood's profound legacy will endure through those whose lives he influenced, including Mr Daley.

"Over 25 years, I have thrown out all of my notes from the Law School as they were gradually overtaken by changes in the law or changes in my interests," he says.

"Robin's legal history lecture notes are the exception, and I know I am not alone."

Professor Sharwood's funeral was held at St Paul's Anglican Cathedral on April 22.

By Andy Walsh