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Farewell Justice Howard Olney


Cite as: (2003) 77(8) LIJ, p.30

Justice Howard Olney was farewelled from the Federal Court of Australia at a ceremony on 30 April. Among the speakers was Law Institute president Bill O’Shea. An edited version of his speech follows.

It is a matter of regret that this Court and the community are losing such a well-respected judge. On the question of retirement, I am reminded of what the late George Burns once said: “Retirement at 65 is ridiculous. When I was 65, I still had pimples”.

You graced the law from an early age, being the son of a solicitor and your father was, in later years, appointed as a master of the Supreme Court of Western Australia.

When your Honour was a law student in Perth, the Blackstone Society, the student society, had a motto which was in Latin.

Not being a public schoolboy but government-educated, you did not attempt at your welcome to say it in Latin, but the message was – let justice be done though the heavens may fall.

Your Honour has had a great deal of time to ponder the heavens and the stars while camping in the outback while hearing cases. You have also managed to maintain a sense of judicial equilibrium in helicopters and low-flying aircraft over the years. You have always managed to preserve a sense of judicial calm during uncomfortable and bumpy rides in four-wheel drives to some of the most remote and inhospitable areas of the Northern Territory.

Throughout the years, your Honour has always had a strong concern for the rights of ordinary people who have found themselves in positions of disadvantage.

You have also been a keen advocate for the rights of workers. At your welcome, you were quoted as having said about that time:

“It was boom time in the north-west; Exmouth was being built, with men working in dreadful conditions, living in caravan parks, their wives and children living in horrible squalor.

“I used to go there to the new iron ore town of Tom Price and sit in court in a transportable building. The living conditions were very rough and a lot of men were injured at work. Safety conditions were not as good as they are now.

“Families were split because the breadwinners were away in some remote area, trying to save a bit – perhaps to get a house.

“All those pressures were obvious in the work that came through the Court.

“I felt there were two sides to the development boom. I took an interest in the human side rather than the commercial side.”

It is this insight and sense of humanity that you have brought to the Bench.

Your Honour has displayed not only a thorough knowledge of the law but a highly-developed understanding of human nature, as well as an ability to administer justice in an environment where emotions are often highly charged.

You have always regarded being a lawyer as a privileged position – and that privilege should reflect a degree of consciousness of the needs of the people that lawyers serve.

As a judge, your Honour has always had the community – and the litigants in particular – foremost in mind in the conduct of your judicial work. You have also displayed a great sense of humility. Indeed, your Honour has a reputation for being humble, courteous, polite and even-handed.

On returning from the north-west, your Honour carved out a distinguished career at the Bar, specialising in workers’ compensation and industrial law, and enjoyed a wide general practice.

Following a brief period in politics, during which time you took silk, you were appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia in February 1982.

Your pioneering spirit was evident soon after your appointment to this Court in 1988. You were the first member of the Federal Court to be based in Darwin and your appointment brought about the efficient disposition of federal judicial work in the Northern Territory.

In addition to your Federal Court appointment, you were appointed a judge of the Family Court of Australia.

As we have heard, you also served two terms as Aboriginal Land Commissioner. After proceedings in 66 locations, evidence from more than 200 witnesses and 11,000 pages of transcript, your Honour ruled in the Yorta Yorta case that native title rights had been lost and were not capable of being revived.

Your Honour has been called on to make deliberations on other sensitive aspects of the law. For example, in 1995 your Honour was called on to determine whether a sandwich includes rolls, pita-bread, falafels or focaccia.

Another point of law raised before lunch was the vexed question of whether a cappuccino includes all other styles of espresso coffee.

Your Honour also demonstrated a sweet tooth for the law when you ruled that four tax assessments issued on sales of $102 million booked by Darrell Lea choco late shops were valid and a bona fide exercise of power by the Australian Taxation Office.

With the most profound best wishes of the Institute and the solicitors of this state, we wish your Honour a long, happy, healthy and busy retirement and thank you for your outstanding contribution to the fabric of the law and the community in this country.


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