Ross Parsons Biography

Ross Waite Parsons was Professor of Law at the University of Sydney 1961-1986. In that time he established the Australia paradigms for postgraduate coursework legal education and continuing professional development, as well as being Australia’s acknowledged leader in tax law research and a foremost scholar in commercial and corporate law.

Ross Parsons was born on 12 April 1921. He was educated at Wollongong High School and the University of Sydney, from which he graduated in Arts (1941) and Law (1944). He took his Law degree with First Class Honours and the University Medal, in an exceptionally able class. He married Marion Johnston in 1946. Although he took articles with Rawlinson, Hamilton and Francis (1942), and Harold T. Morgan & sons (1943) and was admitted to practice as a solicitor (and subsequently to the Bar), he found himself more attracted to academic life than to the practice of the law.

Ross’ first appointment was as a lecturer in the University of Tasmania Law School where he joined Professor K.O. Shatwell who later became the University of Sydney Law School’s Dean for many years. Ross moved to a Senior Lectureship at the University of Western Australia in the following year, and stayed there until 1957, being promoted to the rank of Reader in 1956. He taught a wide range of subjects, developing strong and enduring interest in jurisprudence which he saw as a broad issue concerned with the structure and policy of the law. He was a prodigious supporter of the Law Review of the University of Western Australia. The emphasis of his teaching and research in those days was not on commercial subjects, and so his move to Sydney Law School in 1957, to become Associate Professor teaching in the area of commercial law, must have been inspired to some extent by intuition.

Once in Sydney Law School (where he moved to a Chair in 1961), he threw himself into the three activities which have remained central to his work over the ensuing 29 years; namely, his teaching and (associated with it) his research largely embodied in the production of the Law School Notes, his work for the Committee for Postgraduate Studies, and his contribution to the establishment and operation of the coursework LL.M. programme.

He was able to fix the commercial, corporate and taxation law courses at Sydney Law School with some characteristics which are distinctively his own, including a focus on policy and topics which shape the conceptual apparatus of a subject rather than on topics which happen to have practical significance for the time being, and an inclination to test the resilience of statutory concepts by stretching them as far as their logic allows them to be extended. After a visit to New York University School of Law on a Fulbright grant in the early 1960s, he established the postgraduate coursework Master of Laws at Sydney Law School directed mainly to the legal profession to develop their legal skills and knowledge and to help lawyers become specialists in their chosen are of practice or interest. The program was modelled in part on the highly successful NYU Master of Laws. In turn the Sydney Law School program became the model for postgraduate legal education in Australia.

His principal tools outside the classroom were his redoubtable Law School Notes. In the days when most law lecturers at Sydney Law School were practitioners engaged on a part-time basis, roneoed law school notes tended (with very few exceptions) to be course outlines containing some central legal propositions and at best amounting o an elementary “hornbook”. Ross’s notes are totally different: they have the dimensions of textbooks (in days when legal publishing did not exist in its current forms), but instead of the certitude of textbook propositions one finds a relentless probing, questioning and challenging of the statutory phrase or the “established” but over-simple legal rule. Many of the chapters could become one or several journal articles (and some have), though sometimes there are too many ideas for that to be feasible. His income tax notes became the crowning glory of his academic life, Income Taxation in Australia: Principles of Income Deductibility and Tax Accounting. This 1000 page treatise published by the Law Book Company in 1985 is still the source of much of the learning on income tax in Australia despite two decades of tax reform since, and is constantly quoted by judges in all levels of courts. It is also available electronically. His writings have made several generations of our law students aware that the pleasant hillocks of legal orthodoxy sit above some very dark caverns, and the ideas contained in them have been borrowed by all branches of the legal profession more often than is commonly recognised.

The Committee for Postgraduate Studies is the vehicle through which Sydney Law School conducts lectures and seminars for the legal profession. It grew out of Ross’ activities on his arrival at Sydney Law School in the 1950s when he started for the first time on a systematic basis continuing professional development activities for the legal profession. Its earnings have provided a substantial capital base for scholarships for postgraduate legal study (named for Ross Parsons), and for funding short-time visits by distinguished scholars who are in Australia and would like to spend some time with us (an arrangement commonly called “the Parsons’ Scheme”, after its creator). The Committee was established in 1960, and Ross played a central role in its activities from the beginning. As seminar convener he has brought together academic lawyers and practitioners for fruitful collaboration, providing a forum for assessment and criticism of legislative changes, especially in the tax and corporate areas. The Committee has since evolved into the continuing education activities of the Law School.

While he has made substantial contributions across the range of commercial legal subjects, his work in the tax law deserves special mention. When he came to the Law School the law of income tax was not even part of the curriculum. To him belongs the credit, at least in the Australian context, for developing that subject as an academic legal discipline of the highest order. He has raised the tax courses to such a level that many practitioners would regard them as a prerequisite to legal practice in the tax field.

Ross held visiting appointments at New York University in 1961 and Queen Mary College, London University in 1978. In 1973 he was co-opted to serve on the Asprey Committee (the Taxation Review Committee) which reported in 1975. The Asprey Report of which he was the major author set the tax policy agenda for the next generation. His work on tax policy for the Committee led to a major shift of emphasis in his own research and teaching, and he moved further into the fields of policy and economic analysis. In 1982 he became one of the founding governors of the Australian Tax Research Foundation. On his “retirement” in 1986, he took a position consulting with a major law firm. He continued to write in his usual incisive style producing major works on income tax, including the Wilfred Fullagar Memorial Lecture at Monash University. His last major work was published in 1992. He had a bypass operation in 1993 and decided then that it was finally time to really retire. He died in 1999, a few days short of the new millennium and as one of the major policy goals of his life was being achieved, the introduction of the GST to take some of the burden off the income tax.

Ross was a modest person and did not seek honours. The debt that many felt to him, however, ensured that his work did not go unacknowledged. In 1981 a very large group of his LL.M. graduates honoured him at a dinner which they held to mark 20 years as a Professor of Law and in 1986 he was presented with a festschrift by his colleagues entitled the Law of Public Company Finance. He received the Silver Jubilee Medal from the Australian government in 1977 mainly for his work on the Asprey committee. His income tax treatise was awarded the Sir Hermann Black Memorial Medal. In 1999 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Sydney. At a ceremony attended by a majority of the judges of the High Court of Australia and many others, his comment was, “I hope I have deserved it.”