Eulogy for the Hon P Underwood AC

EULOGY FOR THE HON PETER UNDERWOOD AC delivered by the Hon Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Tasmania, Alan Blow OAM, AT THE STATE FUNERAL FOR THE GOVERNOR OF TASMANIA ON MONDAY 21 JULY 2014

I have known Peter Underwood well for some 30 years as a judge, chief justice, governor, colleague and friend. However I did not ever have the advantage of seeing him in his fur coat, or in his kaftan for that matter.

I appeared before him as counsel for nearly 16 years, from 1984 to 2000. As a judge he was impressive because of his fairness, his efficiency, his quick legal mind, and his courtesy. More than once I have heard him explain that courtesy is essential in the courtroom because the matters that need to be discussed are often so awful or so emotive that the proceedings would descend into chaos if the judge and counsel did not proceed with absolute professional courtesy.

If counsel made a submission to Peter that seemed to be fundamentally flawed, he had a habit of saying, “Just let me make a careful note of that. Mr so and so submits that …” – writing down very accurately what had just been said. That was a sure sign that the submission was about to be ever so politely dissected, deconstructed, and shown to be quite unfortunate.

His judgments were prompt, clear, thorough, learned, and rarely upset on appeal.  One busy morning in 1999 he delivered a particularly concise ex tempore judgment, dismissing an application for an injunction by a company called Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd. It later took the High Court 140 pages to explain why he was right[1].

Peter pioneered the use of modern technology in Tasmania’s courtrooms. He was the first of our judges to bring a laptop into court.

He spearheaded the introduction of case management arrangements and mediation conferences in the Supreme Court’s civil jurisdiction, revolutionising the settlement of disputes and the disposition of civil business.

As Chief Justice, Peter masterminded reforms to the pre-trial procedures in the criminal jurisdiction. Those reforms more than halved the delays between accused persons being charged and the disposition of their cases in the Supreme Court by sentencing or acquittal. To achieve these reforms, Peter managed to obtain consensus in relation to them from the judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers, the magistrates and the police, and to get the government to pass the necessary legislation. A remarkable achievement.

As Chief Justice, Peter was energetic, very approachable, and open minded. He never failed to thank others for their work.

Peter engaged in all sorts of activities relating to the law that were above and beyond the call of duty, particularly in relation to professional development and education. He established the Supreme Court Practice and Advocacy Unit of the Tasmanian Legal Practice Course, recruiting judges to conduct advocacy exercises on a weekly basis, and practitioners to participate as the opponents of the trainees. At judges’ conferences he frequently conducted brainstorming sessions with a roving microphone – often a refreshing change from days of listening to learned speakers. He spent years on the committee that organises the annual Supreme and Federal Court Judges’ Conference and years on the board of the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration, serving as its president for 2 years. He chaired the National Judicial College of Australia in 2007 and 2008. He served on the Defence Force Discipline Appeal Tribunal for ten years.

He made many contributions to the Tasmanian community outside the law. Amongst other things he chaired the boards of The Friends’ School and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, for several years in each case.

In his six years as our Governor, he and his wife Frances worked very hard. They instigated regular public tours of the Government House gardens and the state rooms. They arranged many a musical performance in the ballroom – showcasing the best of Tasmanian musical talent. He was a very energetic Governor, and very much a Governor of the people, attending the special events of many community organisations. He brought about a resolution of the situation that arose after the 2010 Tasmanian election, when each of the major parties won the same number of seats.

Peter gave enormously to the Tasmanian community and to the law. He died in his prime, with much more to give. He will be greatly missed by many people. On behalf of the people of Tasmania, I offer our condolences to Mrs Underwood and all the family. May he rest in peace.

[1] Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd (2001) 208 CLR 199.