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Clive Raleigh Evatt (1900–1984)

by Chris Cunneen and John Kennedy McLaughlin

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Clive Raleigh Evatt (1900-1984), barrister and politician, was born on 6 June 1900 at East Maitland, New South Wales, sixth and youngest surviving son of Indian-born John Ashmore Hamilton Evatt (d.1901), a licensed victualler of Irish descent, and his Sydney-born wife Jane (Jeanie) Sophia, née Gray, who was to be the dominating influence on his early life. Bert Evatt was Clive’s brother. The family moved to Sydney about 1905 and Clive attended Fort Street Boys’ High School. Two older brothers were killed in World War I and Clive, deterred by the family from enlisting, enrolled in the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra, graduating with the King’s medal in 1921. But in April 1922, as a lieutenant, he resigned from the army and followed Bert to the University of Sydney (LL B, 1926) and the Bar (admitted 6 May 1926).

While at the university he resided at St Paul’s College. His uninhibited and outgoing personality found outlets in the Sydney University Dramatic Society and in the Sydney University Union, of which he was an executive member from 1923 to 1926. He represented the university (1922-25) and the State (1922-24) in Rugby League, playing as hooker. On 28 January 1928 he married Marjorie Hannah Andreas at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney. Appointed KC in 1935 at an exceptionally early age, he specialised in workers’ compensation and personal injury cases, in which, with other like-minded practitioners, he enlarged the concept of negligence in the interest of employees injured in industrial accidents. One of the celebrated cases in which he appeared was the 1935 `Shark arm case’ (Ex parte Brady; re Oram).

In March 1939 Evatt won a by-election for Hurstville for the Industrial Labor Party and took his place with Robert Heffron as part of a splinter group opposing Jack Lang. On 5 September (Sir) William McKell defeated Lang to become party leader. When Labor won government in May 1941 Evatt was elected to cabinet and became minister for education. His administration of the portfolio was distinguished by ambitious plans for reform of the inspection and examination systems. But his tendency to act impulsively without consultation did not endear him to the premier, and relations soon deteriorated. Several times McKell overruled his minister, including one occasion when Evatt outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. McKell won the May 1944 election and tried to exclude Evatt from his second cabinet. Caucus elected the maverick, however, but the leader then humiliated him by making him an assistant-minister. Evatt had charge of the State government’s `Yes’ campaign in the unsuccessful Federal powers referendum of 1944. In May 1946 he was appointed minister-in-charge of tourist activities and immigration.

Evatt played a crucial role in James McGirr’s defeat of Heffron in the leadership contest to replace McKell in February 1947; he was rewarded with the portfolio of housing and from May 1947 to 1953 held the position of assistant-treasurer. He was colonial secretary in 1950-52, minister for housing in 1952-54 and minister for co-operative societies in 1950-54. In March 1954 he was forced to resign from cabinet by Premier Joe Cahill. Expelled from the Labor Party in July 1956, for voting against party measures in parliament (to increase fares on public transport), Evatt stood as an Independent for Hurstville and was defeated at the election of February 1959.

Returning to the Bar, Evatt developed an enormous practice, appearing usually for impecunious plaintiffs in damages claims for personal injury or for more affluent clients in defamation actions. The latter included politicians, among them Arthur Calwell, Tom Uren, Bill Rigby (Evatt’s former private secretary, who succeeded him as member for Hurstville), and other notables such as Shirley Bassey, Dawn Fraser, Junie Morosi and Gretel Pinniger. Although regarded by some as essentially a trial lawyer, Evatt enjoyed a very substantial practice before appellate courts. In the Uren litigation he prevailed over his adversary’s appeal in the Privy Council. He was the plaintiff, albeit unsuccessful in the appeal to the Privy Council, in the leading case of Mutual Life & Citizens’ Assurance Co. Ltd v. Evatt (1971), where he asserted negligence on the part of the appellant and which is now recognised as a locus classicus for negligent advice and negligent misstatement.

Evatt’s style of advocacy before juries in civil litigation resulted in many victories for his clients, although it did not always find favour with members of the judiciary or his professional colleagues. A certain eccentricity in manner, which he cultivated as part of his courtroom style, became almost habitual as he aged. Sir Richard Kirby, former president of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, described him as `one of the most dazzling personalities I’ve ever met. He was good-looking and a marvellous actor, and, I think, a much better lawyer than he is given credit for’.

An honorary member (1943) of the Royal Australian Historical Society, he was also president (1951-52) of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a vice-president of the Australia-Soviet Friendship (Australia-USSR) Society. After he left parliament, the practice of law was his life, but he maintained an enthusiastic interest in sport and a deep love of music, serving as president of the Musica Viva Society of Australia. A supporter of democracy in Greece at the end of the civil war in 1950, and the leader of the Australian committee for the self-determination of Cyprus, Evatt was appointed a commander of the Royal Order of the Phoenix by King Paul of the Hellenes in 1958. The decoration was not conferred until November 1964 because the Australian government delayed before recommending to Queen Elizabeth II that he should be permitted to accept and wear it.

Evatt was tall, with an outspokenness and lack of caution unusual in a government minister. Although his electorate, Hurstville, was located in Sydney’s south, he lived at Wahroonga, on Sydney’s North Shore. A house at Leura in the Blue Mountains was a much-loved family retreat. Predeceased by three months by his wife, Evatt died on 15 September 1984 at Darlinghurst and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his son, Clive, also a barrister, and daughters Elizabeth, foundation chief judge of the Family Court of Australia, and Penelope, an architect and the wife of Harry Seidler.

Select Bibliography

  • B. d’Alpuget, Mediator (1977)
  • P. Crockett, Evatt: A Life (1993)
  • C. Cunneen, William John McKell (2000)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 58, no 11, 1984, p 682
  • Unicorn, vol 15, no 2, 1989, p 120
  • Smith’s Weekly, 8 Nov 1941, p 15
  • People (Sydney), 11 Feb 1953, p 14
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Apr 1954, p 3, 14 July 1956, p 1, 10 Mar 1959, p 13, 17 Sept 1984, p 3
  • Australian, 17 Sept 1984, p 2
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen and John Kennedy McLaughlin, 'Evatt, Clive Raleigh (1900–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1900
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia


15 September, 1984 (aged 84)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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