Appointment as Chief Justice

Blow CJ’S Address at Ceremonial Sitting to mark his appointment on 8 APRIL 2013

I would like to start today by paying respect to the traditional and original owners of the land on which this court house stands – the Mouheneener people – to pay respect to those who have passed before us, and to acknowledge today’s Aboriginal community.

I especially welcome to the Court his Excellency the Governor, and two other former Chief Justices of the Court, Sir Guy Green and Mr William Cox. I also welcome the Attorney-General, visiting judges, the Acting Lord Mayor, members of the magistracy, the Solicitor-General, other distinguished guests, members of the legal profession, past and present members of the Court staff, and my family and friends.

Mr Attorney, Mr Barclay and Mr McTaggart, thank you for your kind remarks. From what you have all said, one might think that I have no shortcomings at all.

It is a great honour to have become the 14th Chief Justice of this Court. As the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land, it commenced hearing cases in 1824. It is the oldest court in the country. The office of Chief Justice was established in England in 1268. The Chief Justice has always stood in relation to the other judges as the first among equals, but has had the responsibility of speaking for the Court when necessary. The role of the Chief Justice includes dealing with the Executive, taking responsibility for preserving the independence of the judiciary as a separate arm of government, overseeing the work of the Court, maintaining high standards of judicial administration, and preserving and enhancing public confidence in our system of justice.

Some interesting information about the level of public confidence emerged a couple of years ago as a result of a study conducted by Professor Kate Warner of the University of Tasmania and a number of other academics in relation jurors’ attitudes to sentencing in the cases that they were responsible for deciding. Some 90% of the 698 jurors surveyed considered that the sentences imposed in their cases were either “very appropriate” or “fairly appropriate”. Yet, apparently inconsistently, the majority of those 698 jurors still thought that sentences were generally too lenient. The survey results strongly indicated that that perception was something of a myth. They indicate a need for the courts to work very hard to preserve and improve confidence in their work.

Thirteen years ago the judge whom I replaced on this bench, Justice Christopher Wright, made a farewell speech in which he discussed various difficulties relating to the jury system, and suggested that “the question of criminal trials by jury should not have the sacred cow status that it has developed over the years and [that] it should be opened up for further debate”. His Honour made a passing reference to alternative models that had been successfully used in Scandinavia. That prompted the Tasmanian Bar Association to publish an article on its website under a headline that said something like, “Wright J admits attraction to Scandinavian model”.

One important advantage of the jury system is that jury verdicts have a large degree of immunity from the sort of media criticism that can do a lot of harm to public confidence in the work of the courts. Because of that, I see it as highly desirable that, at least in the general run of cases, responsibility for deciding whether guilt has been proved beyond reasonable doubt should be taken by members of the community, not by judges, however talented the judges may be. If it were otherwise, judges’ verdicts could be criticised as readily as their sentences can be, and the task of maintaining public confidence would be all the more difficult.

For most of my career in the law I had no idea that I might become a judge, much less Chief Justice. When I came to Tasmania in 1976, as a solicitor of considerable juniority, with a working knowledge of a few things like general law conveyancing and New South Wales death duty, I do not think that my destination as Chief Justice would have been regarded as reasonably foreseeable. Certain things impressed me very much about the Tasmanian legal profession when I joined it at that time.. First of all, I was impressed by the friendliness and helpfulness of its members, and that has not changed. Also, I was impressed by the advantages of the fused legal profession. I saw Tasmanian legal practitioners undertaking the work of both solicitors and counsel in cases where only one lawyer was needed, but which, in jurisdictions with a split profession, would have required both a barrister and a solicitor, each charging fees. And I very quickly became aware of the talents that Tasmanian practitioners developed as a result of undertaking both solicitors’ work and counsel’s work. The solicitor knew exactly what would be required at trial because the solicitor routinely appeared as counsel.

But that has begun to change. In civil cases, mediation has become the most common means of dispute resolution, resulting in considerable savings in costs and court time, but resulting also in this Court now having very few civil trials, and in younger members of the profession getting very little experience in conducting them or even watching them. In the criminal jurisdiction, the greater and greater tightening of the belt of the Legal Aid Commission, ever since its establishment in 1991, has resulted in more and more trials being conducted by its in-house counsel, with the result that few members of the private profession are getting the experience that their predecessors used to get.

I see these trends as largely responsible for the growth of the independent bar in Tasmania – a phenomenon that did not even begin until the early 1980s. Tasmania is well served by its independent bar, but it would be a great pity if the advantages of the fused profession were lost or substantially eroded. It is only through making available positions for junior employed practitioners, and allowing them to gain experience in the Courts, that an efficiently functioning fused legal profession can be maintained.

There are many people whom I would like to thank today. I would like to express my thanks to the former Chief Justice, the Honourable Ewan Crawford, for all his hard work, and for leaving the Court in very good shape. Similarly, I express my thanks to his predecessors here today, and to the other judges, past and present, for the assistance they have given me. I look forward to working with Estcourt J, who was also sworn in today, and with Magistrate Robert Pearce, who is to be sworn in as a judge of this Court in June. I would also like to express my thanks, for their assistance, the three Registrars with whom I have worked, Ian Ritchard, the late Elizabeth Knight, and Jim Connolly, as well as all the Court staff with whom I have worked, especially my two secretaries, Christine Parker and Rosemary McHugh. I thank the counsel who have routinely appeared before me, many of whom I value very much as de facto research assistants. And I especially thank my wife Margaret and my daughter Catriona for all their support, and for their ability, from time to time, to make me see things from a common sense perspective, rather than a legal perspective. Without Margaret’s support, I would not be in Tasmania and certainly would not be a judge.

I look forward to meeting the challenges that the coming years as Chief Justice will present to me. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to do so, and to serve the Court and the people of Tasmania in this new role.

Thank you all for your attendance. The Court will now adjourn.