CEREMONIAL SITTING – 11 July 2016
Address by the Hon Justice Michael Brett
Well thank you, Attorney-General, Mr Verney, Mr Stanton, for your very kind words. I suspect that you all painted a far rosier picture than accords with reality, but they – your words are extremely kind nonetheless and I’m prepared to accept them today.
I’m grateful and honoured by the attendance of all of you today in this Court and in other courts throughout the state, which I understand are linked by video. It’s a testament I think to the standing of this Court that it is common practice to have the ceremony marking a judge taking his or her seat attended by many past and present serving judges and magistrates and members of the profession. Today is no different. I acknowledge in particular the presence of Sir Guy Green, Mr William Cox, Justices Robert Benjamin and Duncan Kerr, Mr Pierre Slicer, and my immediate predecessor on this Court, Mr David Porter QC.
I am delighted to have many of my family and close friends here today. I would like to mention in particular my children, Luke and Kate, and my sisters, brother-in-law and nephew, who have travelled from Queensland to be here. My daughter Jacinta was unable to travel here today from her home in the United States but she sent me a warm message of love and support. Finally, I must acknowledge the presence of my strongest supporter and closest companion, my wife Lou. I owe more to her than I can ever express and her unflinching love and support is of enormous importance to me.
On one Friday in 1974, I think the Attorney-General has already referred to this; I attended my last day of high school. I had the weekend off and then on Monday, at the ripe old age of seventeen, I commenced a period of five years articles of clerkship with the firm M G Lyons & Co, a firm of solicitors based in Brisbane. It was a firm populated by a combination of lawyers of Irish Catholic extraction, lawyers of Italian Catholic extraction, and me. I’m not entirely sure how I ended up there but I think it had something to do with my father having played rugby league with one of the senior partners. The founder of the firm, Mick Lyons, had passed away shortly before I started there. He was notorious for regularly sacking the entire firm, partners included, and then hiring them back again when he had sobered up. In fact I was shown a little part of the foyer of the building where they would, when they were sacked, all take the lift down there, stand there, wait until he came down and apologised to them and then they would all go back to work. My five years there as an articled clerk were unforgettable and extremely formative. Those roguish dedicated and generous lawyers oversaw, sometimes in a very robust way, my transition from student to lawyer and from boy to man. My master, the late Neil Buckley, who subsequently became a long serving Family Court judge, was a massive influence on my development. He was a powerful strong-willed but magnificent man. As with many such people he also had a remarkable capacity for gentleness and kindness. Many of the clerks and junior solicitors I worked with at that firm now sit on the Family Court of Australia and the Supreme and District Courts of Queensland. Another, one of my closest companions during my time there, is now the Chief Magistrate of Queensland.
As I am sure you can imagine, my education during that time was not limited to the law. But I did learn much about the practice of the law during my time at the firm. I took away from that time many lessons, but the most important I think was this, that a career in the law, whatever form it make take, is not just a job it is a vocation and must always be primarily about service; service to the community and service to the law and the rule of law. When I came to Tasmania twenty three years ago and commenced work as an employed solicitor at Bishop Gunton Rae in Launceston, that ethic was in clear display in the legal community here, and that continues to be my observation to the present day. As I start work in this Court, it is timely to remind myself again of that lesson.
I have worked pretty much continuously in a law office of one form or another since my time at M G Lyons & Co. I have along the way met and been influenced and learned from many wonderful people. In recent times I’ve been privileged to work with my colleagues on the Bench of the Magistrates Court, many of whom are here today, and I am now joining my distinguished colleagues on the Bench of this Court. I express my enormous gratitude for the friendship and assistance I have received from all in the profession and on the Bench during my time in the law and particularly since my arrival in Tasmania. In include in that thank you the wonderful staff of the Magistrates Court, in many ways the unsung heroes of the justice system, but just as dedicated to the court’s mission of service to the community.
As I think the Attorney-General has also pointed out, and the Chief Justice recently pointed out to me, that with my appointment he, the Chief Justice, is now the only judge on this Court who has not served as a magistrate prior to appointment. I don’t for a moment believe he feels left out. However, his comment was of particular interest to me as my last, albeit very brief role, as has already been said was a Chief Magistrate of this State. Of course, it may simply be a coincidence that in recent times so many judges have been magistrates before appointment, but I would prefer to think that it is in fact a manifestation of the important role which the Magistrates Court has in our legal system and the increasingly high regard in which it is held by the profession, the community, and the government. Magistrates handle cases across a diverse range of subject matter and deal with cases of considerable and increasing importance and value. A citizen’s contact with the law and the judicial system is far more likely to be with the Magistrates Court than with this Court. The magistracy now regular attracts to its ranks lawyers of the highest calibre, many, if not all, of whom would be rightly considered suitable for appointment to higher judicial office. Whilst I would not suggest for a moment that service on the Magistrates Court ought be a precondition of appointment to the Supreme Court, it seems to me to be no bad thing that magistrates are considered for appointment as judges. Qualities such as appropriate temperament, compassion, judgment, decisiveness and industry, can all be effectively road tested during time as a magistrate. These qualities are, in my view, fundamental to successful work as a judge and to the maintenance of the confidence of the profession and the wider community in appointments to the Bench.
I gained many important insights and learned many valuable lessons during my time as a magistrate. Many of these arose from daily interaction with members of the public, who would come into contact with the court as complainants or defendants in criminal cases or litigants in civil matters. Each issue, no matter how relatively minor according to the assessment of lawyers, was clearly of massive importance to the person caught up in the legal case. It occurred to me on a daily basis that I had an enormous honour and commensurate responsibility to determine those issues with justice and the proper application of law. Further, I never cease to be impressed by the almost universal respect shown for the institution of the court and the acceptance of its decision, irrespective of success or failure, or in sentencing matters the severity of the sentence. What I took away from this was that despite editorial criticism from some sections of the media concerning aspects of the work of the courts, and the sometimes publicly expressed and understandable grief and disappointment of those affected by the outcome of a court case, respect for the courts as an independent decision maker is deeply embedded in the psyche of our community. This places an enormous, I would suggest, almost sacred responsibility on a judicial officer to vigilantly and furiously maintain his or her independence and to administer justice efficiently and fairly.
There are many threats to the rule of law in today’s society, some overt and some more insidious. However, I want to suggest that as long as the prevailing perception in the community is that the individual will receive a fair and impartial hearing before a court, irrespective of the identity or power of the opponent, that the rule of law in our society will remain strong and intact.
I am keenly aware of the responsibility thereby imposed on me as a judge and have every intention of doing my utmost to property discharge it and in doing so to follow the wonderful and distinguished example of past and present Judges of this Court.
Finally, before I finish, I want to publicly acknowledge my parents, Jack and Marion. Neither is here, my father passed away some years ago and my mother is in poor health and would not, in any event, have a conscious understanding of these events. I owe them a great deal and I know they would both be pleased by what is happening here today. They have also provided me with wonderful example, but I don’t need to make any promises about following that because I have, I hope, already been doing so for most of my adult life, albeit imperfectly.
I am very much looking forward to starting work as a judge, although, as I have cleverly managed to get myself appointed during the winter recess, I am unlikely to sit in court in substantive cases until next week. I am keenly aware that the workload is heavy but I am very excited by the prospect of that work.
I want to finish by thanking you all again for coming along today. I am very honoured by your presence and I look forward to sharing a cup of tea with you.
The Court will adjourn.