The Centenary of the First Abolition of Capital Punishment in Queensland: A Study in Law and Human Dignity


  • The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2009); President of the Court of Appeal of New South Wales (1984-96); Patron of Reprieve Australia (now known as Capital Punishment Justice Project)


On 1 August 1922, the Parliament of Queensland enacted a Bill to abolish capital punishment. This was the first jurisdiction in the common law world at that time to take that step. It afforded an example and a challenge to the global community. In this article, which derives from the author’s speech to a centenary celebration of the Queensland innovation, the author explains the background of reforms and modernisation of the criminal law and procedure that stimulated the reform. He explains the opposition to reform of many judges and other lawyers and the disappointing record of the High Court of Australia in capital punishment decisions. He also explains recent reforms that have been adopted in Papua New Guinea, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and elsewhere. He recounts earlier instances of partial reform in the United States and other countries, and he lists the continuing opposition to reform in Iran, Singapore, and Myanmar/Burma. Whilst such ‘hold outs’ remain, Australians must continue to advocate abolition. They can take encouragement and inspiration from the innovative reform achieved in Queensland a century ago.