From Australia’s Jewish Past: Henry Emanuel Cohen – the first President of the NSW Arbitration Court

August 30, 2022 by Features Desk
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Henry Cohen was born on 1 December 1840 at Port Macquarie NSW, a twin son of Abraham and Sophia Cohen.

Henry Cohen

He went to various schools in Goulburn and Sydney and at sixteen became a clerk at well-known David Cohen & Co. at West Maitland, where he remained for eight years.

The following is an extract from a letter by Philip Cohen from the notes of Henry Robert Cohen, a grandson of Henry: “The young gent who made out this invoice, I intend to send up to you. I am certain you will like him. He is certainly one of the most “kute” and respectable lads I have ever met. He is a Jew and the son of Mr A. Cohen late of Goulburn. He will suit you well. I did intend to keep him in the Sydney office, but I can get another and if he does not suit can discharge. You want a lad who will stop with you for years and that you can be certain.”

In 1864 Henry opened a store at Bathurst with his brother George, under the name of Cohen & Co. Unfortunately, the venture was not a success and the store closed in June 1867.   Henry then left for London, where he studied at the Middle Temple and was called to the Bar in June 1871. He then returned to Sydney and was called to the New South Wales Bar at the end of that year. His commercial experience enabled him to establish himself as a barrister occupied mainly with mercantile cases. He became prominent in the Jewish community and in 1874 replaced his father on the board of the York Street Synagogue, later becoming president of the community for a number of years.

In 1874 Henry began his political career electioneering for West Maitland.  He was concentrating on national, secular and compulsory education and land reform.  He was successful in being elected to the eighth NSW Parliament, as well as continuing with his legal practice. In October 1877 he stood again for the seat of West Maitland and was returned without difficulty, serving as treasurer for just over a year.  However in 1880, when he stood again for this constituency, he was defeated. He then returned to the Bar and in May 1881 was appointed acting judge of the District Court serving in the Metropolitan and Hunter Districts.  Henry found the District Court jurisdiction too limiting and subsequently resigned in April 1882.  He served again in the seat of West Maitland for a further two years from 1883 to 1885 and held the position of Minister for Justice in the NSW Parliament. He piloted through the Legislative Assembly a complicated bill to consolidate and amend the Criminal Law after it had passed the Legislative Council.  Although he had been offered a seat on the Council, he declined and continued with his legal practice, mainly working on the technical side of common law and commercial cases.  He rarely appeared in criminal and divorce cases.

On 19 July 1895, Henry was appointed acting judge of the Supreme Court, and the following year was offered a permanent position on the bench which he accepted.   After the Industrial Arbitration Act was passed in 1901 he became the first President of the NSW Arbitration Court on 1 April 1902 and remained its president until 3 July 1905.  In this branch of the law he exercised great influence in the State and solved many intricate problems presented by ‘the new province of law and order’ which he had to interpret and apply. These three years were the most important of his life.

Henry was upright and dignified, liked good company, and was known as a swimmer, cricketer and energetic walker. As a judge he was said to be ‘fairness personified’, with his impartiality never in doubt. Without being brilliant, he worked industriously and conscientiously on the bench.   Although he had been reproached for being extremely technical and insisting on the letter of the law in procedures, sometimes to the point of overlooking the objects of justice, he was, as his sentences showed, a very human judge.

Despite his heavy legal duties Henry had devoted much time to the general public benefit. In 1894 he was Chairman of the Directors of the Hospital Saturday Fund of New South Wales and for many years was president of the St John Ambulance Association. After his term as president of the Arbitration Court he returned to the Supreme Court bench.

In March 1911 he left for a holiday in England, the first since his appointment to the bench and, unfortunately during his return to Sydney he suffered a heart attack and passed away on 5 January 1912.  Henry had married Sophie Frank in 1884 and they had two sons – Edgar Henry and Cecil Hope  – both became Sydney  barristers.

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story.

Australian Dictionary of Biography – George Bergman; NSW Parliament – Profiles; Jewish Encyclopaedia – Joseph JacobsGoodman Lipkind; Obituaries Australia

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