First true civil libel case in Australia

The 'Philo Free' trial of John Thomas Campbell

In 1817, 16-year-old George Allen was just a few months into his legal training when he found himself amidst one of the most interesting legal cases in the colony of New South Wales. George had just entered his articles of clerkship with Frederick Garling when Garling was appointed to represent defendant John Thomas Campbell in the first true civil libel case in Australia.

John Thomas Campbell, secretary to Governor Lachlan Macquarie and a well-known gentleman, was charged by Reverend Samuel Marsden with printing libellous matter. The document in question was a letter to the editor of The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (the colony’s first newspaper, and the only one in publication at the time), published under the pseudonym 'Philo Free'. Marsden was a divisive character, much derided for his manner and methods and the sarcastic letter obliquely accused him of misappropriating funds intended for an evangelical mission to New Zealand, introducing alcohol to the Islanders and neglecting the needs of the Australian First Nations peoples. As Campbell was the official censor of the colony's newspaper, Marsden believed he was responsible.

Garling represented Campbell whose only defence was that his conduct was a reasonable oversight, the result of his preoccupation with more pressing matters of public office and his enthusiasm to see the matter of the misappropriated funds revived publicly.

The trial was held in the Criminal Court over three days and was reported on at length. At the conclusion of the trial, Campbell was found to have 'permitted a public letter to be printed… which tended to vilify the public conduct of the prosecutor [Mr Marsden].' However, the jury's verdict was neither 'guilty' nor 'not guilty' due to technical issues with the way the trial was run. Subsequently, the criminal case was dismissed. Dissatisfied with the outcome and angered by the newspaper reports, Marsden filed a claim for civil libel with the Supreme Court. At the civil trial, the court found in Marsden's favour and he was awarded £200 in damages. This time, the newspaper did not publish any mention of the trial.

During the trial, Edward Charles Close (a soldier who may have been present as a juror) took the time to draw the court scene, providing a portrait of the young George Allen. George had a front row seat to the action and is situated in the middle of the courtroom behind the desk, looking straight ahead. Frederick Garling is to the left of George, dressed in black and holding up a piece of paper as he addresses defendant John Thomas Campbell. Reverend Samuel Marsden is to the far right, wearing blue. His arm rests on the barrier.

Image: Close, E. C. (1817). Edward Charles Close - New South Wales Sketchbook: Sea Voyage, Sydney, Illawarra, Newcastle, Morpeth, C. 1817-1840.

Collection of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Step into our story

First true civil libel case in Australia

In 1817, 16-year-old George Allen was just a few months into his legal training when he found himself amidst one of the most interesting legal cases in the colony of New South Wales. George had just entered his articles of clerkship with Frederick Garling when Garling was appointed to represent defendant John Thomas Campbell in the first true civil libel case in Australia.

It all started in 1822

Allens was founded on 22 July 1822, the day 21-year-old George Allen was admitted as an attorney and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and became the first person to complete their full legal training in Australia. When he began his small legal practice in a cottage on Elizabeth Street in Sydney, he could not have foreseen the story that would follow.

Supporting critical Australian infrastructure

17 October 1949 marked the official start of what is still considered one of the largest and most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken in Australia – the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Seeking justice for the Stolen Generation

Right from the start, almost 200 years ago, Allens has shown support for Australia's Indigenous communities and, in 1996, we helped pave the way towards the National Apology through our involvement in the first Stolen Generation legal trials.