BAILEY Kenneth Hamilton

Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department / Solicitor-General
Years active
9 May 1946 – 2 February 1964 / 9 May 1946 – 14 July 1964
Portrait of Sir Kenneth Hamilton Bailey (1898 - 1972), by Spencer Shier, courtesy of National Library of Australia. nla.pic-an23217721.


Kenneth Hamilton Bailey was born on 3 November 1898 at Canterbury, Victoria, the eldest of the two children of bank clerk Ernest Thomas Bailey and Alice Gertrude, née Wells. Ken Bailey attended Canterbury State School and then Wesley College, where in 1916 he was dux and senior prefect as well as captain of athletics and gymnastics and overall sports champion. Subsequently residing at Queen's College at the University of Melbourne, in 1917 he achieved first class honours, was awarded several scholarships, and won his colours in rowing, athletics and tennis. He also served in a reserve unit of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) – the Melbourne University Rifles. At the age of 19, he interrupted his studies to enlist in the AIF, on 25 January 1918. Sent overseas in July that year, he served briefly in France (as a gunner, driving mules) with the 105th Howitzer Battery, Australian Field Artillery. He was discharged in Melbourne on 15 May 1919.

Resuming his university course, Bailey won both a Blue for athletics and a Rhodes scholarship which he took up at Corpus Christi College at Oxford in 1920. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1922 and a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1923, he was admitted to the Bar at Gray's Inn, London, in 1924. Enthusiastically welcomed by his students, Bailey returned to the University of Melbourne that year as vice-master of Queen's College and lecturer in history. On 12 August 1925 he and London-born school teacher Editha Olga Yseult Donnison (who Bailey had met at Oxford) were married in Queen's College Chapel.

In 1927 Bailey was made professor of jurisprudence at the University of Melbourne and was awarded a Master of Arts from Oxford. Appointed as the first Australian-born dean of the law school in 1928, he took up the new chair of public law two years later. Highly respected for his growing expertise in international and constitutional law, his concise and conservative but stimulating and thought-provoking tuition emphasised careful legal analysis. His Master of Laws from the University of Melbourne was conferred in 1933. Prominent in the Australian Student Christian Movement during the 1930s, Bailey subsequently changed his allegiance from the Methodist to the Anglican Church. A committed Christian all his life, he later served for several years as chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn.2

Increasingly involved in international affairs, Bailey, while on sabbatical leave, acted as an adviser to the Australian delegation at the 1937 Imperial Conference and was an Australian envoy to the eighteenth session of the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland. In January 1943 he accepted a role as consultant on constitutional matters and foreign affairs in the Attorney-General's Department, and moved his family – which by then included three adolescent sons – to Canberra. A trusted adviser to Attorney-General Herbert Evatt, Bailey worked on committees revising the preliminary Statute of the International Court of Justice and preparing the final draft of the Charter of the United Nations.

Making valuable contributions to domestic issues as well, Bailey chaired a committee of inquiry set up in 1943 to investigate systems of promotions and temporary transfers in the Commonwealth public service – the committee's report resulted in substantial amendments to related provisions of the Public Service Act in 1945. Bailey also undertook research for the Constitution Alteration (Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) bill, which was the basis of the unsuccessful 'fourteen powers' referendum in August 1944.

Appointed Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department and Solicitor-General from 9 May 1946 Bailey continued his international work. Between 1946 and 1949 he attended several sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. As leader of Australian missions to conferences on the Law of the Sea, held at Geneva in 1958 and 1960, he chaired a committee at each and was closely involved in developing international conventions on the continental shelf and the territorial sea. At home, he appeared as counsel in the 1942 Uniform Tax Case (in which the Commonwealth was successful) and with Evatt in the prolonged Bank Nationalization Case in 1948.

Known for his meticulous preparation and persistence – whether he was appearing personally in court or not – and demanding of himself and his colleagues, he was able to work long hours with little sleep. Under his leadership the Attorney-General's Department attracted many talented lawyers and earned a reputation for a high standard of legal professionalism. Creating an environment similar to that of a university, albeit one in which problems had a very practical application, Bailey advised all legal officers of the Department to take home the Constitution at least once a year, and read it from cover to cover as a discipline, telling them they would be surprised by what they could forget.3 Between 1942 and 1965 Bailey made over 1200 contributions to the Opinion Book. Many of his early opinions, as a consultant, were signed jointly with others – including Evatt, Sir Robert GarranSir George KnowlesWilfred Fullagar and Gilbert Castieau. The vast majority were given individually, in Bailey's roles as Solicitor-General and Secretary. His advice covered wide-ranging topics of significance to post-war governments, including international and constitutional matters.

Made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1953, he was knighted in 1958. Sir Kenneth retired as Secretary to the Attorney-General's Department on 2 February 1964, but continued as Solicitor-General until 14 July when he was appointed High Commissioner to Canada. That year he was made the first Commonwealth Queen's Counsel (QC). He received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the Dalhousie University in Canada in 1966. Following his return to Australia in 1969 he was engaged as special adviser in international law to the Attorney-General's Department and to the Department of External Affairs.4 The Australian National University conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1970, and another was presented by the University of Melbourne in 1972 at a ceremony in the Canberra Hospital, where he was a patient. At the age of 73, survived by his wife and three sons, Sir Kenneth died in Canberra on 3 May 1972.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
    • Jack E Richardson, 'Bailey, Sir Kenneth Hamilton (1898–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, Melbourne University Press, 1993, pp. 89-90.
    • Loretta Re, 'Professor Kenneth Bailey, Fourth Dean of the Faculty of Law, 1928-1946', in Ruth Campbell, A History of the Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, 1977.
    • Information sought from Peter Bailey AM OBE, Adjunct Professor, College of Law, Australian National University.
  2. From 1957 to 1964.
  3. Ewart Smith, The Australia Card. The Story of its Defeat, Sun Books, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 43, 58.
  4. The department became the Department of Foreign Affairs from 6 November 1970.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 1714

commonwealth powers bill


Opinion Number. 1715

commonwealth powers bill


Opinion Number. 1717

commonwealth powers bill

Opinion Number. 1718

Commonwealth powers bill


Opinion Number. 1720


whether Senate…

Opinion Number. 1721


whether Income Tax Bill 1943…

Opinion Number. 1724

Delegation OF FUNCTIONS by the Sovereign

Opinion Number. 1728


Opinion Number. 1747


Opinion Number. 1752